When identity politics become a boner killer.
About six months after coming out as trans, I bought an expensive dildo that I was pretty sure would save my spiraling sex life. It had lots of features — vibration, obviously, but also a nifty little refillable ejaculate reservoir I could fire at will with a flick of my thumb. It felt like the logical next step in my evolution from your everyday cisgender queer to a bona-fide transgender person. It was an investment I hoped would remedy an issue that has long plagued me: bottom dysphoria, a term some people use to describe discomfort with genitalia that doesn’t match their gender identity.
For me, it comes on mostly in bed. Splay-legged and horny, I look down at my crotch and feel a confusing series of emotions — an embarrassed sadness, like, hey wait, that’s not what it should look like. Then frustration, a willful attempt to ignore it peppered with unconvincing assurances to my partner and, ultimately, the giving-up. The crying. The self-pity and the dread and the conviction that the whole episode will repeat until my marriage is a sexless husk of a union and my unsatisfied spouse leaves me for someone easier to get down with.
So I bought a fancy dildo. I thought it might fix things. It did not. The first time I tried it out, the vibration settings were so powerful I jumped. It was so cumbersome to assemble — vibe insert, condom, dildo looped into an elastic band — that by the time I finished fumbling it onto myself I felt a bit like I was wearing a bop-it. The second time, I flicked the reservoir by accident and covered my partner in lube. The crying. The self-pity. The dread.
Where had I gone wrong?
Resisting the urge to blame an inanimate silicone object, I looked to sociology and found a 2018 study by Spencer Garrison, a trans doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan. Entitled “On the Limits of ‘Trans Enough,’” it takes a close look at how trans folks tell stories about our identities to one another, ourselves, and the outside world. My hunch was that my bedfails had less to do with what I strapped onto my junk than what I told myself about what the strapping-on meant about who I was.
“As trans folks,” Garrison tells me, “we’re asked to account for ourselves and our presentation constantly — at the doctor, in therapy, on Tinder, on Twitter, every time we come out to somebody.” In his study, Garrison examined narratives from 17 trans-identified subjects on how they understand their genders. He then examined their accounts, looking for differences between how non-binary trans people told their stories versus binary trans folks.
“I’d expected to hear lots of accounts from binary trans men and women that really echoed that, ‘born-this-way,’ ‘born-in-the-wrong-body’ sort of dominant cultural narrative,” he said.
What he found, however, was just the opposite — and shed a bright light on the trouble I’d been having in bed. “When pressed to account for themselves,” he writes, “the non-binary folks in this sample made quicker recourse to stereotype than others did.”
Non-binary trans people, like me, seemingly felt an acute pressure to verify themselves as “trans enough.” They were more likely to claim certain trans stereotypes — to indicate that they’d always known they were trans, or felt persistent gender-variance in early childhood — than binary respondents. Many of these stereotypes, I noticed, were things I couldn’t readily claim for myself; I had no idea I was trans as a child, and while I do feel things that align with a more masculine gender identity, they aren’t always ‘persistent’ or ‘obvious.’
Garrison’s findings point to something sociologists haven’t often accounted for in their work on gender.
“When non-binary folks seek to claim trans identity,” he explains, “they get pulled into this vortex where they’re compelled to account for their transness — to parents and therapists and endocrinologists. But because the dominant narrative of transness is so vested in the binary, ‘doing transness’ itself requires invoking it.”
In other words: To be non-binary, a person needs to “prove” they’re neither male nor female. To be trans, a person needs to “prove” they’ve felt persistent, consistent aversion to their assigned binary gender throughout their childhood. Thus, a double-bind emerges. And the stakes are high: Without producing convincing trans narratives for the authorities that be, non-binary trans people may be denied affirming health care or accommodations such as use of new names and pronouns in their workplaces.
According to Garrison, as far as the mainstream is concerned, there’s really only one story of transgender identity: “a born-in-the-wrong-body story about dysphoria and sadness, that centers the physical body as the site where gender comes from and takes shape.” In his paper, Garrison notes that due to this powerful cultural narrative, many study subjects suggested that “the experience of struggle and unhappiness is critical to establishing authenticity as a trans person,” and that “trans identities are less legitimate if the experience of gender dysphoria does not significantly impair one’s daily functioning.”
Bingo: The problem wasn’t with how the dildo attached to my body. The problem was that I’d grown attached to my dysphoria. I didn’t want to let it go, or acknowledge that it wasn’t even always there, for fear of that meaning I wasn’t really trans. I’d so thoroughly internalized the idea that all trans people felt crippling dysphoria all the time that I’d built up my whole sense of identity around it. In a way, I took pride in the suffering. It made me feel authentic. As someone who’s long felt a bashful sense of inauthenticity in my skin, this had a powerful draw.
Garrison notes that even within trans spaces — internet chat rooms and support groups — non-binary trans people face scrutiny. Sometimes, he says, “people are at each other’s throats, calling each other out about not being trans enough.” Traceable to safety concerns about being outed or doxed, these challenges can nonetheless hurt non-binary trans folks’ sense of authenticity and self-esteem, and result in them omitting aspects of their experience in exchange for a sense of belonging.
And worrying about whether or not you really belong in the trans community, while naked with someone you like, is a recipe for self-conscious disaster.
However, “the more exposure we have to different types of [trans] narratives,” says Garrison, “the easier it’s going to be to change the dominant narratives that have gained so much traction over time.”
So I told another non-binary friend about my dildo fail, and instead of judging me, they offered laughter and reassurance. I told my partner that, okay, actually, I didn’t always feel bottom dysphoria and that I would like to continue getting down in many of the same ways I had back when I identified as an everyday cisgender queer. I braced myself for the Earth to open up and swallow me for not being trans enough. Without debilitating dysphoria, who was I?
Just me, turns out — my desires in flux, my pleasure elusive some days and less so on others. Sometimes, especially when I’m dysphoric, toys help me get there. Other times, they’re just in the way. And miraculously, I get to stay me the whole time, sharing the differently gendered facets of myself with my partner in bed and discovering that they’re more than enough.
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