Notes on Gender Role Transition
Anne Vitale PhD, Editor





T NOTE #11

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Emergence--a danger filled, critical time in a transsexual's life

By Anne Vitale Ph.D.

July 18, 2002


Emergence is a term entomologist use to describe that period in an aquatic insect's life when it leaves the relative safety of its birth place at the bottom of a stream or lake, rises through the water column, confronts the surface tension barrier and, if successful, passes thorough to become an airborne adult. It is a danger filled, critical time in the life of these animals.

I am borrowing this term to describe a similarly danger filled, critical time in a transsexual's life. However, unlike the insect, the beginning and end of a transsexual's emergence is vague and harder to describe. Roughly it starts when the individual has been on cross sex hormones long enough for the physical changes to be noticeable by others, continues through that first day of starting to live full time and ends when the individual begins to live comfortably in the new gender role.

Early in emergence things are relatively simple. If the emerging transman or transwomen has prepared well, friends and relatives have been notified, new support networks have been established, and the hormones are doing what they are supposed to do, going full time should look relatively easy. Especially after years and perhaps decades of worrying about how hard transition will be. Eventually, buoyed up by the excitement of it all, longer and longer sojourns out into society in the new gender role are made. Being misgendered at this stage is disappointing and awkward but still considered understandable by most transsexuals. The rationalization is simple; after all, the hormones have not had a chance to complete the job. Even so, pressure builds to "go full time," and a date is set to make the big move. On this day the individual will, for the first time, either go to work or go to school in the new gender role with the commitment to never again appear otherwise.

For the male-to-female (MTF), this usually means among, other things, the wearing of make-up, feminine specific clothing and use of the women's restroom. For the average female-to-male (FTM) going full time is usually less date specific. With the less stringent social encyclical to be gender conforming enjoyed by women in most western cultures, most FTMs present somewhat masculine long before transition. For them going full time is more a matter of when the FTM gets the name and gender on their driver's license changed and starts using the men's room at work or school on a regular basis.

Going full time is the time when push comes to shove. It is not uncommon to see the steady progress toward gender role transition begin to waver. During the pre-full-time period both MTFs and FTMs routinely switch back and forth between gender role presentation. It is not only good practice it is a necessary experience. It does, however, have one major drawback. In order for the individual to go back to the gender role of origin, he or she must retain a sufficiently large portion of their old identity to get by on a daily basis at important tasks such as work and school. Since it requires one's full sense of being male or female to pass on a regular basis the limits of practice are clear. Even though the hormones have modified the individual to a half-way state, without being able to give 100 % to the effort, presenting in the new gender role will be inconsistent at best. Being misgendered at this late stage of presentation in the new gender role can be a major blow to one's confidence.

Other issues and questions arise. For example, people who were providing provisional support may now switch sides and become adversarial. If married, the individual's spouse who until now had been hoping that therapy would "cure" their partner by talking them out of transition may now raise the anti and file for divorce. If there are children involved it is common to make threats of never allowing the transitioning spouse to see their children again if they go through with it. Beyond mere threats, the child custody courts have become depressive and debilitating battlegrounds. Writing letters to the courts in defense of some of my clients has become an integral part of my practice.

Then there are the unfinished physical problems. MTFs need to find a way to deal with unfinished beard removal while MTFs may still need to have top surgery. Then there is this...without a penis, how do FTMs manage the men's room issue? Negotiating the men's room is a notoriously strenuous ordeal for FTMs.

All of this eventually leads up to the time when, like that of the emerging insect, the transsexual gets caught in the surface tension of gender role transition. One of the first lessons learned is that it takes more then a new wardrobe, hormones, facial surgery or even sex-reassignment surgery to present consistently in the new gender role. It takes a psychological shift far beyond just wishing it so.

That, of course, is easier said then done. Abandoning decades of behavior that have provided the individual with daily sustenance for an untried and merely practiced gender role is a daunting task. Very few transsexuals do it well for the first month or two.

With the passage of time and with the freedom to give it 100%, leaving emergence and entering fully into the new gender role starts for both FTMs and MTFs about the third or fourth month after going full time. When one talks to those who are having problems making a healthy transition, it is clear that the 100% effort required is not forthcoming. Some problems I have seen include--The individual reports having to make repeated, short trips back to the old gender role to see their children or visit parents to whom they have not yet been fully honest regarding their life decision. Some people complain that fellow employees at work are harassing them. For others the problem is more psychological. There are MTFs who have not really dealt with their sexism. For them the idea of presenting unconditionally as a woman is the equivalent of telling the world they are a sissy. A dread they have had all their lives.

Emergence is a time when support groups and close work with a therapist can be especially helpful. If there is an issue that needs to be addressed then face it now. Putting off large problems in the hope that they will go away just because you have declared that you have gone full time, will not work. If you don't want to go back to your former gender role then you must deliberately move toward your new gender role. Success is a matter of accepting fully what you have done, demanding space to exist and then relaxing into the situation.


Copyright 2002 Anne Vitale Ph.D. All Rights reserved.

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