Q&A: Why am I transgender?

I’ve received a number of inquiries that go along these lines:

I know what it means to be trans, and that’s the closest I’ve come to finding a word for who I am.  But why are people transgender?  What causes the Q&Amisalignment between body and mind?

Before I get into it, please recognize that I am by no means an expert in all things transgender.  I’m just a trans person who happens to really, really like researching basically anything, and I’m also a social worker who’s specializing in therapy for trans folks.  In terms of years I’ve been looking into gender and sexuality issues for ten years, transitioning for almost four years, and studying social work for another two years.

And now for the all-important question: What makes people transgender?

There is no easy answer to this.  Ultimately what we know about being transgender comes from case studies of individual trans people, or in other words we know what we know because of the experiences of trans people.  Which, of course, is not an answer at all.  The experience of being transgender is not in itself a response to why people are transgender.

So I’ve done some digging.  It turns out that the human brain is not sexually dimorphic.  In other words, male-assigned at birth (MAAB) and female-assigned at birth (FAAB) individuals don’t actually have categorical differences in their brain structures.  Here’s what this means:

There are no “male” or “female” features in the brain.  The vast majority of brains are mosaics of features; some of these features are more common in MAAB folks, some more common in FAAB individuals, and yet others are common in both.

Basically there is no sort of brain that makes a male a “male,” nor a brain that makes a female a “female”.  I place these words in quotations because identity is more of a social construct than it is a biological imperative.  That is, our identities are a product of our environment.  The ways in which we express our personal identities depends in some part on the social environment in which we find ourselves.  This is known as social identity theory (which was first coined by Tajfel and Turner in 1986, in case you were interested).

Still not convinced about the inherent fluidity of biology?  Take a look at this video done by fellow blogger theevolutionofman:

And here’s another video that, while isn’t as scientifically backed-up, does speak to the social interactions that go into making up our gender identities.  Look specifically at 2:00-4:34 and 5:25-6:41:

EDIT: Here’s a neat, short, and easy-to-follow video that I found after writing this post.  AND it has science and sources!  My only critique is that the vlogger states that brains are inherently male or female:

So what does this mean in terms of transgender individuals — what makes people transgender, at the end of the day?  As a general rule, nobody knows.  Which is a huge disappointment for people like myself, who structure their lives around tangible, scientifically verifiable facts.  Taking all the above sources into consideration, doing some extensive brooding, and giving myself time eventually led me to an answer:

I am transgender because I am.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I am that I am.”  I came to realize this undeniable truth about myself as I grew older, and instead of denying it, pretending it doesn’t exist, or shaming myself and others who identify as I do, I decided to embrace it.  No, I don’t have a solid scientific basis upon which to make this decision, although the identity theory of mind gets somewhat close.  I only have my own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences off of which to go.

And you know what?  That’s perfectly enough to go on.  Just do you, and the rest will fall into place, given enough time and patience.  Life’s not easy; it was never advertised as such.  So don’t make it any harder by digging through yourself with a fine-toothed comb for answers that even modern science haven’t given us yet.  Take your experiences as they come, day by day, minute by minute, and listen to yourself.  After all, you’re the only expert out there on yourself.

Mental Illness as Excuses

I’ve taken to watching Marvel’s Jessica Jones over my winter break.  I was maybe halfway through it before embarking on finishing off the first season in one day.  I tell you, I’m wasted on school breaks.  I’d been keeping my mind peeled for something to write about when, out of nowhere, this happened:

Now I’ve been absolutely fascinated by this show.  It deals with some pretty heavy topics that a lot of shows on TV shy away from: alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA), assault, consent, mental health, and ethics to name a few.  It also has a copious amount of black humor and sarcasm, both of which I generally appreciate in a show.

But one issue that’s been cropping up not just in Jessica Jones, but on the international scene as well, is the issue of mental illness and violence.  This isn’t exactly a new topic of conversation, mind.  The M’Naghten Rule of 1843 established that those who are deemed to be so cognitively “insane” as to either 1) not understand the nature/quality of their actions, or 2) not understand that these actions are ethically wrong, they would be classified as “legally insane.”  This led to the idea of volitional insanity in courtrooms across the world.

Mind you, this isn’t directly talking about the Insanity Defense, although the concepts are similar.  The M’Naghten Rule sought to impose a limit on the Insanity Defense.  The Insanity Defense determines whether or not the person in question is mentally or emotionally competent to stand trial for their alleged crimes.

And now that we have that pretext out of the way I want to return to the topic at hand.  I understand the remonstration of hating mental illness.  Heck, I hate mental illness sometimes, too.  Having unpredictable boughts of anxiety followed by dsythymic episodes is no walk in the park.  Arachnophobia is, if possible, worse than my general emotional concerns.

But hating mental illness, or being uncomfortable with the subject, does not give anyone the right to blame acts of violence — however large — on people who experience mental illness.  As I’ve been working in the mental health field for almost four years now (let’s not count my experience living as, you know, myself) I’ve stumbled upon a gigantic secret:

Everyone’s a little mentally ill.  Whew, I’m glad that’s off my chest!

If someone hasn’t experienced mental illness, then I’ll be the first one to shake their hand and congratulate them with making it so far in life without a MI diagnosis.  In all seriousness, mental illness is nothing to scoff at, or mock, or use as something on which to push the things we’d rather not think about.

If by some miracle you haven’t experienced MI, don’t be an ableist prick about mental health concerns.  If you have experienced MI, still don’t be an ableist a-hole.  Tearing down others because you can’t understand the enormity of human depravity is an incredibly low blow.  Just stop, please, for all of our sakes.  You’re only digging yourself further into a hole, and you’re harming those who are extremely vulnerable in the process.

But if you’re going to keep at it, then just keep me informed.  I’d like to know when I’ll be able to retire some day.

Identical (A Slam Poem)

The text is in the video’s description, but here it is again:


When you grow up an identical twin the lines between
you and her are blurry—you become less of yourself
and more of a pair, a unit, groupthink at its finest.
Jung called it the Collective Unconscious while Freud
fumed at the very notion, at the sheer nerve of a person
daring to establish their own ideals.  I can relate.
We start and finish each other’s sentences so often
no words need ever be spoken.  I often find myself
struggling to recall—Erin, did I…no wait, it was you
who got caught sneaking Dunkin’ Donuts at midnight.
I just plotted our escape from the crib and cringed when
you took the fall.  I remember your look of shock, chalk full
of powdered sugar horror after Dad walked in to find you
face-first in the box; and then you panicked and offered him
a Vanilla Kreme.  I remember that time I snuck into his
razor heads and cut every one of my tiny fingertips
trying to comprehend how each blade could possibly fit
together to work as a collective whole.  Like how we
could fit together despite your sturdy, stick-straight
demeanor and my tendency toward self-destruction.
But the lines blur and we’re still identical, sitting in
identical classrooms until suddenly we’re not—our bodies
are separate but our minds cannot be untwined.  We
swapped fifth grade struggles like our friends swapped
Pokémon cards.  We thought we were ready for puberty,
that magical time in a girl’s life when I start to understand
maybe I’m not a girl—that maybe I’m in the “wrong room”
watching animated erections form on-screen but I sure as hell
don’t need this purple velvet bag of firsts.  First pads, first
condom, and first Where do you shove these things up? and
first Mom, why am I rusting my underwear—I’m no Tin Man,
I swear I still have a heart.  A heart that shriveled in ninth
grade and sawed at three months premature life lines to
release the pain and confusion while you…you were perfection.
The perfect daughter, perfect student I could only dream of
living up to but we’re identical.  Through blurred vision
I tried to tell you “I’m gay,” but in freshman year we’re
still identical and I “didn’t seem gay” to you.  And when we spent
a junior year evening at the Temple of Poseidon catching starfish
it didn’t seem like my chest should be as neutral and flat as the
dock we sat on.  The morning of college graduation I changed
from Stephanie Michelle to Brannen Skyler and I watched
your vision blur when you asked me, “Why?”  Identical to
how others ask “Why?” when I still sometimes talk about
myself in the first person plural.  I see our face in the
bathroom mirror and I know why we cried.  We didn’t
lose ourselves—we just lost our reflection.

*COPYRIGHT 2015 by Brannen C.*

Identical (Trans) Twins

I’ve struggled for a long time to put into words what it’s like to grow up an identical twin, let alone a trans person with a cisgender twin.  Two things happened within a day of each other, and are as follows:

The New York Times published my essay in their Transgender Today editorial series.  This occurred on the 17th, I believe.  The next day, after I sent in my submission on my birthday, I was able to perform a slam poem that I’ve been working on for a month or two about the same topic.  I’ll make a separate post for the poem so that it will show up embedded into the post, and put the text down below.

Anyone looking to disseminate the work I’ve linked to is more than welcome to do so.  I only as they you do your due diligence and give attribution to me where it’s due, since my writing is kind of like my soul; take it from me without permission and I wither away into nothingness.  So please just link back to my blog when asked where you got it.

Low Dose Hormones and Anxiety

Too long, didn’t watch?

I go into detail on “anxiety spells” that I’ve noticed, off and on, for maybe two years; this has all been since starting on hormones and in the midst of several dosage alterations, plus going off of my estrogen blocker.  On my lowest dose yet (100mL/month) I seem to be getting these spells about once a month.  I strongly suspect that this is linked to my menstrual cycle, but since research about transgender bodies and the mental health effects of HRT is — let’s face it — pretty much nonexistent, I have no actual way of knowing why this is occurring.

My options at this point involve seeing an endocrinologist and psychiatrist, and once I get my medical insurance situation straightened out (yay for Medicaid!) expect an update related to going on Medicaid and looking to get hormones covered.  In a red state governed by none other than Scott Walker.

In addition to this I’m thinking that I can up my anxiolytics, possibly decrease or go off of my antidepressants, or look into an OB-GYN to see what options related to hormones and my presumably female body might be.  On top of my last semester and a half of grad school, this’ll be a blast.

Using Pronouns in Therapy

A major concern of mine at the beginning of the school year was how to introduce my pronouns into a therapeutic setting.  I’ve had more than enough experience doing this as a client (probably with three different therapists), but I suddenly found myself unsure of how to approach this with clients of my own.  As with all things in life I decided to come up with a game plan.

I chose to present my pronouns in a way that would be most beneficial to my clients.

I looked at it from the perspective of having been a client for about 4.5 years.  I thought to myself, “If I were seeing a therapist for the first time, how would I like them to talk about pronouns?  What would I want them to say?  What would sound too preachy, or what would sound professional enough that it wouldn’t bother me?”

My general script goes something like this:

“Hi, my name is [insert name here], and I tell all my new clients that I use they/them/their/themself pronouns.  I tell you this to let you know that if you ever come in and want me to use a different name or pronouns, I’m more than comfortable doing so, and this is a safe place to have that discussion.”

I’ve had a range of reactions to this.  With my transgender clients they seem to warm up to me immediately, which is pretty fantastic.  For other clients I’ve received head nods, moving on to the next subject, or else confused stares and questions.  When a client seems particularly confused and asks a number of questions, I tell them that it really has nothing to do with our work together, it won’t effect our working relationship, and it’s just for general information as some clients really like to know about pronoun usage.  This seems to help assuage the more concerned and confused clients.

Overall this seems to be a good strategy when interacting with clients, particularly with transgender clients.  If I know for sure that my client is transgender I sometimes add a bit where I ask them for their name and pronouns, and I assure them that I’ll make a note of these in their file.  I’m still working on figuring out how to change names in our filing system, but all in good time.