The July Locus contains a couple of obituaries for the trans artist, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, who I wrote about briefly here. Both authors (Arnie Fenner and Robert K. Wiener) were good friends of the deceased; both consistently use the name “Jeff”, and both consistently use male pronouns. I am not, however, going to get ranty about this. After all, these articles have been written by people very close to Jones, someone I have never even met. I have no idea what the truth of the matter is. I do, however, think it is necessary to address the issue. It is human nature to assume that high profile members of a minority group are typical of that group, and reading the two obituaries people could easily come away with the idea that most trans people are tragic, crazy, and will come to regret their transition.
I’d like to state from the start that there’s nothing wrong with someone turning back from transition. There can and should always be an exit route, up until the point that the person concerned is convinced that what they are doing is right for them. Doctors and psychiatrists who encourage transition in the expectation of fees are just as culpable as those who peddle aversion cures. It is perfectly possible for trans people to find equilibrium and happiness without full transition, and if that’s what works for them we should support it. But equally there are reasons why transitions might fail, and by no means all of them mean that the person concerned was “not really trans” or that, as radical feminists allege, the whole concept of gender identity is a lie.
As I said, I can’t ever know the truth of the matter. What I can do, however, is draw on my experience of transitioning relatively late in life, and thereby hopefully explain the pressures that trans people are sometimes subjected to. Please note that what follows is very personal. Other trans people may have had very different experiences, and I am not trying to speak for everyone, just explaining how things did go, and could have been so much worse, for me.
Let me start with a couple of quotes. First this from the autobiography on Jones’ website.
Some of my early memories come from about the age of 4 or 5. By then I knew I wanted to be a girl. Maybe I was born with a kind of gender inversion — some call it a birth defect. I know nothing of these things. I do know that my identification has always been with females — in books, movies, art and life.
Now this from Arnie Fenner’s obituary in Locus:
Though he lived the rest of his days as a transgendered person he told me candidly in 2006, ‘‘It was a mistake. I still think like a man and desire women like a man does. I thought it would make me less depressed and I was wrong. I drove down a dead end road and now I can’t back up or turn around; the only thing I can do at this point is accept things as they are. And I think I have. Besides, what other choice do I have?’’
I want to try to explain how these things can both be true.
The first thing to note is that Jones was born in 1944. Back in those days, things were very different for trans people, especially in Georgia. This again from Jones:
In the south, in the ’50s there were no gays and no lesbians, and certainly no one like me. So I became secretive. In my own mind I became ashamed, guilty and worthless — this was the road I started down so long ago.
It wasn’t that bad for me. By the time I reached adolescence there were people like Christine Jorgensen, April Ashley and Caroline Cossey who I could look to as role models. The guilt, the shame and the feelings of worthlessness, however, are very real. April and Caroline had enough bravery and self belief to transition early. I never did. Many trans women have done things that look like running away from femininity, perhaps in a desperate attempt to “cure” themselves. Calpernia Addams joined the Navy. Jan Morris climbed Everest with Hillary and Tenzing. I wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes in the military, nor have I ever been fit enough for mountain climbing. There were times, however, when I would have given anything to be “cured” of the way I felt.
Unfortunately, despite a considerable amount of snake oil peddled by dishonest psychiatrists, all the evidence suggests that trans people can’t be “cured” in this way. We simply don’t know enough about how human brains and bodies work to make those feelings go away. What we can do is allow them to transition — a cure of a very different sort — and it seems to work very well. The number of happy trans people appears to vastly outweigh the number of unhappy ones (see here for data).
Transition, however, is a difficult process, especially if you do it late in life, and even more so if you are already famous.
The late in life thing is partly a matter of biology. The further you are post-puberty, the more entrenched your physical appearance becomes. Trying to transition at the age of 55, as Jones did, means that you have to be quite lucky to end up looking convincing as a woman. Of course people shouldn’t judge by appearances, but they do. Trans women are often held to a far higher standard of beauty than cis women. People who are kind will sadly tell you that you just aren’t making the grade; people who are less kind will laugh at you. And of course you always have dreams. I would have loved to end up looking like Debbie Harry, or even like April or Caroline. There was never any chance that would happen. But if you don’t meet people’s expectations of appearance, feelings of failure are inevitable. If things are really bad you will routinely be insulted in the street by complete strangers. I have heard of trans people who are afraid to go out of their homes, because they know they will be followed by a gang of neighborhood kids shouting abuse.
Late transition is difficult in other ways too. I know this doesn’t fit with the general desire for things to be black and white, but actually gender is a product of both nature and nurture. If it wasn’t a matter of nature, trans people would be easily cured by the sort of brainwashing techniques peddled by the snake oil salesmen. But nurture plays a part as well. The longer you live in a male role, the harder you try to conform, the more you start to think and behave like a man. Personally I tried hard to hang on to my identity. I might have been utterly terrified of the prospect of transition, but I was already experimenting with interacting with society as a woman when I was in college. I had male friends, but not “laddish” friends (well, apart from the various cricket clubs I hung around with and kept score for, but even then I was effectively one of the WAGs, not one of the team, and delighted to be so).
When Jones says, “I still think like a man”, that sounds to me more like an admission of failure to resist conditioning, rather than an admission that one is not really trans. The follow-on comment, “and desire women like a man does”, suggests a world view in which trans women are supposed to be gender-stereotypical in every way, including being androphilic (fancying men). That’s a world view that was often forced on trans people by doctors in the early days. We’ve mostly got away from that sort of thing now. Many of my trans woman friends are enthusiastically lesbian, and don’t see this as a failing. I don’t see it as a failing either. Jones may not have believed women had to be gender-stereotypical, but it is a message that is often thrown at trans women by those around them, and failure on your part to live up to their expectations can result in their failure to accept your transition.
That leads us into the whole question of the environment in which you transition. One of the rules of thumb that I quickly learned to go by is that the closer a relationship you have with someone pre-transition, the harder it will probably be for that person to accept your transition. That’s because your identity is more firmly rooted in their mind, and they have an emotional attachment to the person they believe you to be. Some of my family still sometimes accidentally mis-gender me and call me by my old name.
In the obituaries Fenner and Wiener both state that Jones’s friends continued to use the name “Jeff” long after Jones had started living as a woman. They say that Jones was happy with this, which may well have been true. For me, however, every mis-gendering, every use of the wrong name, is a sign of at least failure on my part, and possibly of lack of acceptance of my identity. To have that message reinforced day-in, day-out when I was starting to transition would have been unbearable. It would have driven me crazy.
In the autobiography Jones says:
People have been unimaginably supportive, and slowly that shame is passing away. My wife, Maryellen, has been my backbone through all of this. I’ve never known such acceptance and love.
That sounds great, but it doesn’t sound like the unhappy, regretful person described in the obituaries.
I should note here that I’m not trying to point the finger at Fenner and Wiener, and accuse them of lack of support. Both sound as if they were very fond of Jones, despite that fact that their friendship came at a cost. It is pretty clear that Jones was not an easy person to befriend. In any case, coping with the transition of someone you know is hard. Even I get it wrong at times. A case in point is Poppy Z. Brite, who is in the process of transitioning from female to male. (I’m not outing anyone here. Poppy has been very open about the process online.) I’ve never met Poppy, though we have many mutual friends, but his books have been known to me for years, and until a few months ago I always associated those books with a woman writer. These days I have to constantly remind myself to think of Poppy as a man. With time it will become easier, but if I can get these things wrong I can’t blame other people too much for occasionally doing so.
For my transition I took fairly extreme steps. I moved to Australia, and built up a whole new network of friends who had never known me as anything other than Cheryl. This worked very well for me. As it turned out, as I gradually resumed contact with (non-family) people who had known me pre-transition, it mostly went fine. Neil Gaiman was one of the first, because he came to Australia for a convention. I will always be grateful to him for the warm and friendly reaction I got.
The point here is that I had a circle of friends who accepted me as the person I presented as. There was no mis-gendering, no wrong name, not even any sympathetic concern. I was just me, and that did wonders for my self-confidence. I don’t claim that this will work for everyone, and of course many people won’t be lucky enough to have such an opportunity. It is also true that these days, with public attitudes towards trans people having changed significantly, the pressures I faced, and that Jones may have faced as well, will be a lot less. Nevertheless, I believe that I would have found things much more difficult if I had been surrounded by people who were having difficulty accepting my transition.
The final point is that of fame. I was pretty much unknown, except to friends, family and work colleagues, when I started to transition. I am so grateful that the Internet wasn’t very widely known back then. Jones, on the other hand, was world famous, as Jeffrey.
I’d like you to stop for a moment and consider what it would be like if Neil Gaiman suddenly announced that he was transitioning to female. (I use Neil as an example here because I know he won’t mind, and he provides a usefully extreme example.) No matter how confident he was about this, no matter how supportive Amanda, the kids, Lorraine and so on were, Neil would still have to deal with the rest of the world. There are many women fans who are in love with him, hours of TV showing him as a man, thousands of photos showing him as moodily handsome. Jones didn’t have that level of fame, but didn’t have anonymity either. Jeffrey Jones was a famous, much loved, much awarded artist. I can’t begin to imagine the sort of stress that must have caused.
In short there are all sorts of reasons why transition for Jones must have been a much harder process than it was for me. That the process might not have gone well is no great surprise. Even for someone as apparently successful as me (and I am very happy with how things have gone) there are always disappointments. Had I not transitioned I would probably be much more financially secure than I am now. There’s the sexism. There are members of my family who will never speak to me again. There are people I feel that I have let down badly. But equally if I hadn’t transitioned I would never have met and fallen in love with Kevin, and I would probably never have had the self confidence to do the things that won me three Hugos, or to write posts such as this. I would still have been very much ashamed of who I was, and regretful of a chance missed.
These days, I suspect, things are rather easier. The reason that people such as Jones and myself transitioned fairly late in life is because we were born in a time when trans people were barely known, and feared and hated when they were. The world has changed a lot since then. I confess that I occasionally view young people like Kim Petras with a somewhat jealous eye. But, as Jones said, the only thing that I can do is accept things as they are, and be happy that many young people today will be spared the shame, guilt and agony that the likes of Jones and I suffered.
So, if you are a Locus subscriber and have been wondering about the Jones obituaries, the good news is that things have got better. Tragedy, at least in the short term, is no longer an inescapable doom for trans people. Also, please don’t immediately condemn Fenner and Wiener for their apparent mis-gendering. They knew Jones better than we did, and like Jones they grew up in a time when trans people were almost universally regarded as freaks. Transition is a complicated and messy business, and I don’t envy anyone trying to cope with it late in life.