If you think redefining gender is a 21st century phenomenon, think again. On the contrary, notions of gender are really artificial constructs that have changed over time. So why can they cause so much pain?
Flowery Perfume Wasn’t Always Feminine
The first transgender CEO, Christine Hallquist, explains in the film Denial that her lifelong gender dysphoria started in elementary school. She sat next to a little girl who wore lovely perfumes. This caused the young Hallquist to silently long to wear them, as well. It was crushing when she realized – to most people – it would not be socially acceptable for boys to wear such fragrances.
What Hallquist did not realize at the time is that floral perfumes were first worn by the male priesthood in Ancient Egypt. They were considered the nectar of the sun god Ra. For them, perfume was like holy water. Later, elite Egyptian men – and eventually women – begin to wear perfume.
While we’re considering what was inherently masculine and feminine in ancient times, picture Egypt as it was recreated in the 1956 film The Ten Commandnments. Recall the unapologetically sexy fashions worn by Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner. At the time, Egyptian men were breaking with all previous traditions. They shaved their beards, donned perukes (hair pieces to make their hair look fuller and more luxurious), and – yes – wore sweet smelling perfumes. It’s also worth noting that their flesh-baring fashions – including mini-skirts and bare shoulders – only seemed to enhance their masculinity.
So how did Hallquist end up feeling so suffocated by gender norms that were not always so normal?
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Why Does Gender Hurt?
Gender dysphoria is defined as acute suffering around one’s gender. Some transgender people suffer gender dysphoria, but many do not. Ironically, some trans people don’t experience the sensation until they have gender confirmation surgery and then feel the new body is no longer their own. Everyone’s experience is different.
We don’t know why some people suffer gender dysphoria. However, therapy (particularly Gestalt visualization exercises) based on healing “introjects” has proven helpful. An introject is an idea or attitude we unconsciously adopt from others: people, institutions, media.
Everyone has introjects to the extent that we are all influenced by others. However, only certain introjects are harmful. This is particularly true if we adopt the distorted views of negative people. Negativity builds on negativity. And when it does, an introject can take on a life of its own and result in gender dysphoria.
Ultimately, most people are a complex mix of what might be traditionally called masculine and feminine qualities. Doesn’t every man (cis or trans, gay or straight) have a potential for great feeling, appreciation of beauty, possibly even an inner diva? Doesn’t every woman harbor a toughness that enables her to get things done and exhibit great determination and courage?
The yin and the yang are intertwined. Each contains a mutual recognition of the other. Being capable of the full gamut of possibilities is what makes us complete humans. My guess is that one day in the not-so-distant future – when gender is viewed less stereotypically, gender dysphoria may becomes a thing of the past.
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Greater Honesty and Freedom
“Million Dollar Man” and “Million Dollar Woman” used to be monickers for transgender people. Back then, that’s about what it cost to get gender confirmation surgery.
By almost any account, being transgender can still be the most labor intensive and expensive of the LGBTQ identities. It can also be the most disruptive to existing social relationships. Even when people are supportive, the shift is often nearly as difficult for family, friends, and co-workers as it is for the person transitioning.
All things considered, the recent increased discussion surrounding being trans helps us see our world more clearly. Many people remain baffled at the strength of the trans movement. Trans people represent an estimated 0.3% of the population. On the other hand, that’s 1.4 million Americans. In contrast, we have heard much less in the media about the 40% of LGBTQ people who are pansexual/bisexual.
Yet in the end, trans acceptance will be a hard-won victory that leads to greater honesty and freedom for all people. In addition to understanding our trans siblings, the process will lead to a better understanding that gender “norms” were never set in stone in the first place. And that could save many people plenty of pain.
Visit the Transgender Wellness Center on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles and The Center on W. 13th Street in New York City for more resources.
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Last modified: August 19, 2019