A friend of mine wrote a thought-provoking blog post about the issue of whether being gay is a choice, and whether it matters if it’s a choice or not. Part of what makes her essay so good is that it’s intentionally not from a theoretical viewpoint; it’s based on her own personal experience. When I told her it connected with some thoughts I’d been having recently, she encouraged (urged? demanded?) that I write my own post on the topic. I can’t improve on what she said in her essay, but I can bring my own story to it, a story that’s both similar to and different from hers.
I’m queer. I’m not a lesbian, but rather a bisexual transsexual (which is fun to say out loud, if nothing else). Both my gender transition and my sexual orientation have raised questions of choice for me.
This post will look at my gender transition, which took place during the period mid-’05 to mid-’06. It was in the time preceding that transition that questions of choice came to the fore. One obvious question: did I have a choice about my inner feeling of femaleness? To that I would say no. In the course of counseling, I went back all the way to age 4 in my memories, and that feeling of femaleness, along with the desire to act on it, had been there all along. I won’t hold any 4-year-old accountable for making bad life choices, myself included. So it wasn’t a choice then. As I grew up, and on into adulthood, I tried to make the feelings go away by force of will; that is, I tried to choose not to feel female inside. When I had still not succeeded by the age of 53, I had to admit that it looked a lot more like part of who I was, than a feeling I chose to have; and if that’s what it looked like over the course of half a century, it very likely really was what it looked like.
That was lesson one about choice: sometimes you just are who you are, and you don’t have a choice.
Certainly that realization of powerlessness over something so big contributed to the unprecedented wave of depression that then enveloped me at that time. As sort of a Plan B, since I couldn’t make the feeling just go away, I did my best to research what could cause something that was so resistant to will power. Fortunately, I was working at the University of Michigan at the time, where the graduate library has excellent collections on gender, both from the feminist and from the transgender points of view; there’s also a medical library for the university’s med school. Surely, in all that, I should be able to find an answer to this problem of having no choice about feeling like the wrong sex – maybe a hormonal imbalance, or childhood abuse, or a traumatic brain injury in my past.
Six months, dozens of books, and hundreds of articles later, I surrendered. The answer was simply this: some people just feel like the opposite sex inside, in their hearts, minds, and spirits. Nobody knows why. And when the feeling is strong and persistent, the only relief is found in transitioning to the sex that a person feels like inside.
Having now accepted that I had no choice about feeling this way, I saw that I did have a choice about what to do about it. Neither alternative appealed to me, though: continue to struggle for the rest of my life as I had for the preceding 50 years; or turn my life completely upside down and live the rest of my life as a woman. Choosing gender transition carried the risk of losing relationships with family and friends, and possibly losing my job as well. Choosing not to transition carried the risk of never escaping the clutches of deep depression, and the certainty of never escaping the feeling of being a different sex inside myself than I was on the outside.
Lesson two: having a choice doesn’t necessarily mean that any of the options looks really desirable.
I couldn’t decide. I went for long walks. I got drunk a lot. I prayed. I cursed God. I considered suicide. I joined a gender group, then switched to another. I talked endlessly with my counselor, my wife, my gender groups, and anyone else who would listen. None of those things made the choice for me. At the time, I thought I was deferring making the choice, but I see now that to defer was itself to choose – to make a choice for the status quo.
Let’s call that lesson three: having a choice can free you from one of the alternatives. But it does not free you from having to choose; in fact, it obligates you to choose.
As I said at the beginning, I did end up choosing transition. I felt that I could no longer stand feeling as bleak and as sad as I had for the preceding year. If transition could relieve that depression, I just didn’t have the will to fight it any longer. I took my chances on the consequences of that choice. As it turned out, I lost my marriage and with it, the ability to live in the same house with my then-5-year-old daughter as I watched her grow up. There were also some collateral material losses. By and large, though, none of the other feared consequences came to pass.
But it still didn’t feel like a choice really, not a free choice. You may say that I could’ve chosen to wait one more day; since I’d waited so many days already, what difference would one more make? And the same argument would apply the next day, and the next. Why should I ever have to choose transition? The analogy I’ll use here is holding your breath. If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, surely you can choose to hold it for 11 seconds; what’s one more second? And if you do hold it for 11, then we know you can choose to wait one more second, so it’s your choice whether to hold your breath for 12 seconds. And on and on. But of course, eventually you have to breathe again; at some point, you can’t choose even that one more second. And as I continued to choose not to transition — by deferring making the choice — that one more day and one more day finally reached a point where I could not defer it one more day.
So I guess lesson four is something like this: sometimes logic tries to tell you that you have a choice, while nature is saying that you don’t have a choice. When that happens, nature eventually beats logic, every time.
In wrapping up, I want to touch on one more thing: this is my story, about my struggle with choice and queerness. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything about anyone else’s story. And nobody else’s story can prove or disprove mine. And that brings us to
Lesson five: Your mileage may vary.