It would be surprising indeed if the truth were not more complicated, and I think most people agree that this is the case. Still, conversations about "What is it like to be trans?" often seem to spiral away into one or other of these positions. For example:
"I was a tomboy and always hated girly things - does that make me transgender?"
"No, it doesn't - and the fact that you think of your younger self as a tomboy (i.e. a boyish girl) suggests the opposite. You're confusing gender expression with gender identity."
"But if gender identity is different from gender expression, what does it consist of? And why do you feel compelled to express yourself in your gender? Can't you just identify as female secretly, and not frighten the horses? Why is that not a viable option?"
"Perhaps if you tried living for a few years as a man, being seen and addressed as a man by everyone you knew, you could answer that for yourself."
"But then I've always lived as a woman. I'd have a whole lifetime of habits and socialization to undo, so the cases aren't alike."
"If trans is a real thing and not just a mental disorder, where is the scientific evidence for it?"
"Well, there is some evidence of differences in brain structure between trans and non-trans individuals, but the jury's still out. To be honest, there's been surprisingly little research."
"Then I don't believe in it. Chromosomes rule!"
Answering the question, "If gender identity is different from gender expression, what does it consist of?" is no easy matter. One approach is to hand the questioner a complete set of the works of Judith Butler - but Butler isn't the easiest or clearest of writers, for all that I think that performativity is a useful way into the subject. Julia Serano's notion of "subconsious sex", as described in Whipping Girl, is attractive but feels like a placeholder until a better-evidenced theory comes along. One can point out, as I did a few months ago, that gender expression is very largely in the eye of the beholder - but I'm well aware that that isn't the whole story. Or one can simply say, "It just is different. It may be hard to understand if your body, gender identity and gender expression are all in alignment with prevailing norms, and because the language available for us to discuss the matter is also in alignment with those norms it is equally hard for me to describe. Are you prepared to trust my account of my own experience?" Of course, while some people are prepared to extend that trust, others are very much not.
Yet another approach is to suggest an analogy. In that spirit I'd like to suggest that a helpful analogy (by no means a perfect one) may be with the way that left-handedness has been understood over the years. As it happens, it's not a random connection: research has in the past shown a strong correlation between left-handedness and transsexuality. What the significance of that correlation is for the aetiology and nature of either condition is, however (and somehow typically), not understood.
There are numerous commonalities between being trans and being left-handed.
- Language has often valorized right-handedness over left-handedness. Dextrous, maladroit, cack-handed, gauche, sinister, are amongst the many words and phrases that do this. Even "right" and "left" themselves are value-laden terms, if you consider their etymology. I hope I don't need to demonstrate that there's a whole vocabulary of negativity for trans people, too.
- The aetiology of handedness is still unclear, as far as I can tell, but the range of explanations covers very similar territory to those advanced to explain gender identity. Is it simply a question of upbringing, for example? Kenneth Zucker, Joseph Berger and other reparative therapists still make a living telling parents how to "cure" their trans children. Back in the sixties Abram Blau was using a similar shtick, writing articles with titles such as "Don't Let Your Child be a Lefty". Today, over- or under-exposure to hormones in utero are amongst the biological causes invoked to explain left-handedness, as of being trans. (Note, it is almost always left-handedness that is seen as in need of explanation, rather than handedness as such, or - still less - righthandedness. Similarly, cissexuality is a subject that no one researches.)
- For a long time - and perhaps even today - left-handed children were forced to use their right hands. Mental distress and effects such as stammering were a frequent result (George VI being a high-profile example). Left-handed people occupy a world in which right-handedness is the norm, and in which many environments and tools are designed with the assumption of right-handedness - opening them to disadvantages and even dangers that to right-handed people are largely invisible. The higher rate of accidents amongst left-handed people is then ascribed to their being "clumsy". Trans people could make similar observations, about upbringing (being forced to adopt normative gender identities), about design (e.g. in the area of official forms) and more generally about how living in a world run on aggressively cisnormative lines leads both to mental distress which is then attributed to their being trans (viz. the classification of being trans as a mental disorder) and to physical danger (viz. the high murder and assault rates).
The analogy is not exact, as I say - either between the phenomena themselves or between the ways they are perceived and treated. Five of the last seven Presidents (including the current one) have been left handed - and so for that matter is the current British Prime Minister - statistics that trans people can only envy! In fact, for all that anti-leftie prejudice certainly exists, I don't see the same kind of incomprehension and antagonism that I do in the case of trans. No headlines scream "Left-handed man accused of murder!", for example. I don't think many people today would dismiss being left-handed as a "lifestyle choice", or as "unnatural". The fact that we don't fully understand handedness doesn't seem to detract from people's acceptance of it as a genuine phenomenon. Left-handed people aren't constantly asked "What is it like to be left-handed?", as least in my experience (for yes, I am). I've never been told by anyone that my left-handedness is all in my head, or that my right-handed interlocutor's ability to use their left hand for some tasks makes them left-handed too.
No doubt the percentages make a big difference here. The proportion of left-handed people - depending whom you ask - seems to be about 10%; for trans people (again depending whom you ask) it's considerably less, perhaps as low as 1%. The chances of someone knowingly being acquainted with a left-handed person are extremely high. Perhaps too handedness isn't as central a component of most people's identity as gender, and variation in that area is therefore less threatening. But that's precisely why it's a useful analogy, I think, because people might be able to look at the question rationally, without getting defensive, or indeed aggressive - and then carry their understanding across into the more contentious area of gender. "If I can accept left-handed people, why not trans people too?"
Just throwing it out there - left-handedly.