Imagine a sheer, stony cliff next to the sea, being pounded by surf. At the foot of the cliff, someone clings to the rocks. Wave after wave slams into them, driving them against the cliff face, their skin torn and shredded by the jagged surface. There is no way for them to climb the slick face. Their only hope of escape would be to dive into the seething water and try to swim to safety. Or possibly to drown.
That, I imagine, is what it’s like to suffer from gender dysphoria under intense pressure from your own psyche to transition, while at the same time repeatedly reaching the conclusion that you are not interested in living as the opposite gender.
I know many people like this. Some of them seem relatively happy, but others live buffeted by the incessant noise of dysphoria, trying to keep it from destroying them. One friend has been repeatedly hospitalized for anxiety and depression. Another has spent years in therapy trying to deal with it. A third is addicted to alcohol and painkillers. Even those who seem able to cope don’t emerge unscathed.
We who have transitioned successfully are quick to advise following in our footsteps. Our lives improved immeasurably, and we want these gifts for others. But what is good for the goose is not always good for the gander. Transition benefited us, but everyone judges best what will work for them. We don’t stand in their shoes or see life through their eyes, and we are unqualified to make that decision for them.
The reasons people choose not to transition are as varied as the people themselves. Some would-be trans women forego transition for the sake of their careers, not wanting to jeopardize income or advancement. Family is important to many, and they rightly fear the effects of transition on their marriages, their relationships with their children, or the esteem of their parents, siblings, and other relatives. Still others relish their social standing as men and won’t risk threatening that.
Would-be transgender men perceptively see the pressures our culture places on men to conform to the narrow roles defined for them. For some, they’re unwilling to take on that sort of pressure, while others don’t see themselves up to the task. The disruption, difficulty, and uncertainty of the transition process deters many of all genders. And for those who do not identify as either of the two binary genders, the risk that they would be less comfortable in a new presentation than they are in their old can be forbidding.
Regardless of reason, the commonality seems to be a conclusion that rather than saving them, transition will rob them of what makes their current lives bearable.
We cannot tell them with any certainty that transition will leave them better off. However, medical and social science has nothing else to offer. Generations of doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors of all sorts have tried and completely failed to come up with ways for transgender people to be comfortable with the mismatch between their gender and their bodies and circumstances. We have no other helpful choice for them.
So they cling to the cliffs, hammered by wave after wave, each exacting a painful toll. Their story is seldom told amid news articles and documentaries about ecstatic transitioners. They try to endure, just hoping to hang onto the rocks for a little longer with no relief in sight, doing whatever they can to live an authentic and satisfying life. Many suffer in silence. Even their families and closest friends don’t know about the demon of gender dysphoria that plagues them. They are virtually alone in their private hell. Even contemporary research by the therapeutic community long since abandoned efforts to find better ways of comforting those who don’t choose to transition, focusing instead on smoothing the way for those who do.
I confess that I don’t know can be done for them either. I can hold their hand, tell them I understand, listen, and give accurate information. It isn’t much. Best it can do is buy them another day on the rocks, giving strength to endure being pummeled by punishing waves for a little longer.
And I can tell their story here. I can expose their plight to the light of day, while they hold their sorrows tightly to their chests. And I can make sure their question is asked, even if others will answer.
Is there hope for the cliffhangers?