ASK THE THERAPIST
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1992 by William A. Henkin
<Q> I have fallen for someone I thought was a woman, but it turned out she is a post-op transsexual. Does this make me gay? Why didn't she tell me about this right away?
<A> The questions you ask are part of the ongoing concern in the gender paracultures and among therapists who work within those paracultures: do people who change sexes actually become what surgery makes them appear to be? Or do they remain what their bodies were at birth, even though their bodies have been altered? Or were they always what they claim they are, even though the bodies they had at birth seemed to contradict their feelings? In other words, is your friend a woman because her body now looks like a woman's body? Is she a woman at all? Or is she a woman because she has always been a woman, even though she had the body of a man?
I'll give you my responses which are by no means universally accepted and I'll tell you why I think as I do; but at least while researchers, clinicians, and theoreticians in psychology, sexology, and medicine are uncertain how to answer them, you're going to have to settle these questions for yourself.
I don't think falling for a woman who turns out to be a post-op male-to-female (MTF) transsexual (TS) makes you gay unless, of course, you're a woman: in framing your question you did not indicate your own sex or gender.
Virginia Prince, in many ways the grande dame of the MTF universe, has said that sex is what's between your legs and gender is what's between your ears. The underlying assumption for most people who qualify for sex reassignment surgery (SRS), which in some quarters is also known as gender confirmation surgery, is that the individual was born, or has lived virtually all his or her life, with anatomy that was too incongruent with his or her psychology for the mind to be changed. Rather than continue to live with this sort of ongoing discord, which can be enormously painful, the person elects a course of physical transformation.
The choice for sex reassignment can hardly be undertaken lightly. Most of the experienced and ethical surgeons in the field are members of the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, and follow the Association's Standards of Care. The Standards require that a prospective candidate for SRS spend time in psychotherapy with a therapist who holds a graduate degree in a clinical behavioral science, and is additionally trained in sex and gender issues.
After the therapist and client agree that transformation seems like the most reasonable course to follow, the client must have a medical work-up and, if there are no physical contraindications, can begin taking hormones under the care of an endocrinologist. The hormones alter the shape of the person's body because they alter the way muscle and fat are distributed; they change the texture of the skin, and the patterns of hair growth; in people going from female to male (FTM) bodies hormones lower the voice. Physiological males who are becoming physiological females (MTF) undergo electrolysis to remove facial and body hair. Hormones also affect the individual's psychology, sometimes profoundly.
If the hormonal sex reassignment is successful in the eyes of both the therapist and the client, and if the client wishes to proceed to surgery, he or she must cross-live for a minimum of 12 months, and a second therapist must concur with the first that surgery is an appropriate option; at least one of the two therapists recommending surgery must hold a doctorate in a clinical behavioral science.
SRS has an array of additional complications for the successful candidate, which I needn't cover in this column. Moreover, the person undergoing the transformation must learn to stand, sit, walk, talk, move, and function in all respects like a member of the sex he or she is becoming, in order to live as fully natural a life as possible. The "new woman" for whom you fell evidently has her moves down pretty well, for example, since you did not guess her secret before she told you.
The cost of the whole transformation process may range anywhere from $20,000 - $50,000, depending on a variety of factors, not including lost income during periods when the individual cannot work. It is painful, time-consuming, and to some extent dangerous, and it costs many people their families, friends, and careers. Leaving apart the whole debate about the existence of a third or even a fourth gender, by and large I see no reason to doubt the assertions of people who accomplish such an ordeal successfully, that they were born into the wrong sexual bodies for their psychological genders. If the woman you fell for says she is a woman, I would say she is a woman, too, and if you are male I would say you have a heterosexual relationship.
Why the lady didn't tell you about her transformation right away is a question you'd best put to her. A number of the new women I have met simply regard themselves as female and see no reason to set up doubts in other people's minds before those people get to know them for who they are. Some who are married with adopted families have never even told their husbands. I don't generally condone secrecy in intimate partnerships, but neither would I wish to compel a person to risk his or her future by disclosing a history a partner might never understand. These are all extremely personal, individual choices.
From the very few facts you've provided, it sounds to me as if the woman you fell for made two honorable decisions: first, she presented herself as she truly is, and that turned out to be a woman you found attractive; second, she told you how she used to look, leaving you free to use that knowledge in whatever fashion you saw fit. To your credit, you sought more information on the basis of which you may come to a greater understanding of the woman, of yourself, and of the complicated path we all tread as human beings.
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