Is Flesh A Problem Or An Opportunity In The Eyes Of God: An Excerpt
An excerpt from, obviously:
I could not possibly have known I was trans as a child. When my friends and I went through the normal developmental stage of trying to set household items on fire during eighth-grade sleepovers, we always used Bath & Body Works cucumber-melon spray as an accelerant. What could have been more womanly than that? If pressed to think about the subject further, I imagine I might have considered it a net positive for female representation among pubescent firebugs and nascent arsonists. The closest I came to expressing anything remotely along the lines of a desire to transition was trying to open a savings account in the fourth grade under the name “Savannah Hall” while my mother was in line at the bank, and later spelling my given name with one “L” instead of two on all of my seventh-grade homework assignments. The savings account never took, but Savannah received promotional mailers from the Bank of America well into high school.
I spent the majority of my adolescence longing to be an adult, and the joys of being not-a-child (living independently, leaving mugs in the sink, the freedom to treat my body and possessions with indifference as a response to stress of any kind) have always outweighed the attendant difficulties (bills, aches and pains, losing the ability to recover quickly from a sleepless night). Being a grown-up is a joy that has never lost its shine, so you might imagine my frustration, upon arriving at an understanding of myself as a transgender adult, to find that the national conversation was shifting almost immediately—almost as if in direct response—to questioning the existence of transgender children. It felt rather as if I had walked into a party and started to introduce myself only to hear, “I’m sorry, we’re looking for someone younger,” especially because I spent no brief amount of time asking myself why I wasn’t younger, why I’d spent so much of my life carefully avoiding any questions about gendered directionality.
I don’t pretend that this is a uniquely trans problem, of course; anyone who arrives at their thirties still profoundly self-centered might feel similarly let down. But the sting remained nevertheless, not least because I felt personally indicted and shoved into a conversation about children I would greatly have preferred to have about myself. “But I don’t especially want to talk about trans children,” I protested. “I want to talk about me. I wish the trans children all the best, but don’t make me share my debutante ball with them.”
In August 2018, the following things happened in the following order: I flew to Dallas to have top surgery, I marked the fifth anniversary of my sobriety, and the open-access scientific journal PLOS One published a survey by Lisa Littman about “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” a term coined by a group of parents of trans and questioning children. (I have a constitutional dislike of being upstaged and felt, quite sensibly, that this was a transparent grab for attention targeted at me personally. Here I was, brand-new chest hot off the press, still in its original factory packaging, and it was already old news.) More specifically, the term had been coined by parents who frequented one of a handful of trans-antagonistic forums like Transgender Trend and Youth Transcritical Professionals. There was the expected controversy on publication, of course, not least because the type of parent who posts regularly on a website called Transgender Trend might not be especially inclined to describe their child’s coming-out process as particularly balanced or worthy of respect. “Parents describe that the onset of gender dysphoria seemed to occur in the context of belonging to a peer group where one, multiple, or even all the friends have become gender dysphoric and transgender-identified during the same timeframe. Parents also report that their children exhibited an increase in social media/internet use prior to disclosure . . .” Rapid-onset gender dysphoria might more aptly be called, then, “unwanted coming-out disorder,” where parents belong to a peer group in which one, multiple, or even all their friends might self-describe as “a pretty open-minded person, most of the time, but don’t you think this is taking things a little far?”
The article was eventually updated and republished as what PLOS One editor Joerg Heber characterized as a “survey of the parents,” rather than a “clinically validated” study, which seems like a fair assessment. Littman herself wrote that “ROGD is not a formal mental health diagnosis at this time,” which holds the sort-of-charming implication that it might later make it onto a list of informal mental health diagnoses, something a busy doctor might offer at the end of a fifteen-minute remote consultation: “I’m sorry I can’t offer you something as reassuringly traditional as ‘hypertension’ or ‘gender identity dysphoria,’ but we have a ton of ROGD lying around after the last pharmaceutical rep came through the office. If you’d like to take some with you, you’re more than welcome to it. Take some for your friends, if you’d like, it’s perfectly safe and over-the-counter, and I’d be happy to give you all a diagnosis en masse, if your parents are comfortable with the idea. Now, at this time, the diagnosis lacks formality. I’m speaking less as a doctor and more in the style of a slightly officious work acquaintance, or a chatty fellow-passenger on a train. Consider this the athleisure-wear of medical opinions: affordable, comfortable, easy to slip into, acceptable at a certain kind of last-minute happy hour, if you don’t have time to run home and change into a diagnosis with a fitted waistband.”
I was surprised how frequently this came up when I was doing the social transition rounds. I’d come out to a friend, we’d talk broadly about what I’d been contemplating, what I’d been afraid of, what I expected for my future, and after a few minutes, with a mildly pained expression on their face, they’d say something along these lines: “What do you think about those kids who make a lot of trans friends in high school or college, and they’re all sort of sad and change their names at the same time? What’s that about?” To which I would not usually have much of an answer, since I don’t know a lot of teenagers. When pressed (“What are these teenagers doing that you think they ought to be dissuaded or barred from doing? What procedures do you think they have access to? What outcomes do you fear? What futures do you hope for? By the way, do you have a general sense of what hormones do and don’t do?”), said friends would rarely be able to point to anything more specific than a vague sense of concern. Lord knows I can relate, having spent plenty of pre-transition time myself letting I dare not wait upon I would, but I could only muster up meaningful levels of concern for specific situations with concrete details, not the mere idea of some teenager somewhere buying a binder.
It wasn’t just that I resented being asked without warning or preparation to furnish some sort of foundational explanation for a sea of vague, hypothetical-sounding trans-adjacent children— although I did, of course—what I really resented was that, as freshly minted an out trans person as it was possible to be, I was already old news, swept aside within five minutes of coming out in favor of someone younger, sexier, more complicated. My friends were not interested in my relatively late-in-life, sturdy-thirties transition into a full-grown man. I was being traded in for a younger model. Worse, a hypothetical younger model, because no one ever wanted to talk to me about a specific possibly trans child, merely the idea that there might someday be a teeming, seething horde of them, bristling with hormones and furious as the forces of hell.
Oddly, the same phrase came up over and over, although I don’t think many of these friends had spoken to one another about it: Something irreversible. As in, I’m afraid these kids are going to do something irreversible. But just what that thing was, and what irreversibility looked like outside of the usual irreversibility of time and momentum, I couldn’t have told you, because they were never quite able to explain it to me. “Something irreversible” is to polite people what “self-mutilation” is to impolite people: a quick way to reorient the conversation around their own discomfort with bodies. In both cases it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to have a productive discussion with someone struggling with a reflexive, implicit horror of flesh. Any mention of someone else’s transitioning body sends them into direct and panicked conflict with the prospect of their own transitioning body; since this is a prospect they find unbearable, it becomes immediately necessary for them to unload their own desire and disgust onto the nearest suitable target.
For whatever reason, whenever these people—who I believe truly cared for me, who actively willed the good in my life, who wanted to support trans people as much as possible—heard that I was transitioning, their very first, preverbal response was to imagine: Well, what if someone had forced me to transition? And whatever their internal response to that question was, usually some combination of horror and relief, would set the tone of the rest of our conversation. In a strange way, I found that rather relatable, since I used to spend a lot of time hoping someone would force me to transition, too, so that I could become a man without having to explain myself or answer any difficult questions. But it quickly snowballed into a rising sense of panic for them: Wait a minute. If someone had forced me to transition just because I liked playing with boys’ toys when I was nine, I wouldn’t have the life I have today. And I like the life I have today! Why are you trying to take my life away from me?
I’d have to do my best to reassure them: “You can keep your life! You’re not like me. Someone would have told you if you were like me! You’d definitely know by now if you were like me. Even though I didn’t know I was like me until quite recently, and it came as quite a surprise. Oh, no—maybe you are like me. Maybe you would never have known that you were like me as long as I’d never told you, but now that I’ve told you you’ve started thinking about it, and once you start thinking about it you can’t stop, and now you are going to have to transition—my God, it is contagious! Get everyone else out of this coffee shop, for the love of Christ, if you want to maintain persistent gender continuity—it’s onsetting rapidly, this gender dysphoria, and I don’t know who it’s going to claim next!”
A mother, midforties, presents with the distressing case of her son, thirty; an unremarkable childhood gave way to a bog-standard adolescence and showed every sign of developing into an unexceptional manhood until a wedding at Cana (the influence of out-of-town friends?) then, suddenly and without warning (one odd moment around the age of twelve, if we’re being strictly honest, when he had been separated from his parents and other relatives and spent a little unsupervised time talking with teachers in the temple courts, but honestly, nothing since then), full-blown messianic identity disorder, a total change in social groups, all new friends, most of them unattractively dressed, a sudden fixation with fatherliness, miraculous wounds, unexplained twelve-year emissions of blood, unflattering haircuts, unusual new grooming rituals involving feet, hair, and perfume, a tendency to take metaphorical language about abundance, bread, and wine too literally, generally antisocial behavior, etc., etc. Nothing in the child’s behavior between the ages of birth and thirty accounts for this abrupt change in demeanor and habit. Further research is required before a formal diagnosis can be made; however, a number of like-minded parents in the area share a growing concern that underlying issues of depression and anxiety may be responsible. Moreover, many of them report that a disproportionate number of their messianically minded children have espoused similarly eschatological worldviews after coming into contact with one another.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand something a friend is experiencing by imagining, if just temporarily, what it might feel like if it happened to you. The trouble only begins when it triggers an empathy-overload feedback loop and you start to imagine that it’s about to happen to you, that any minute now someone is going to travel back to your own adolescence, seize upon the mildest of gender-nonconforming behaviors (She climbs trees! He doesn’t want his hair cut short!), and drag you kicking and screaming into a forced-transition factory. I never quite knew how to settle that fear in other people, in part because I wasn’t sure what they wanted from me more—permission to consider transition if they wanted to, or permission to enjoy not having to transition. Their fear, as best I could understand it, looked something like this: Had I known transition was possible and available to me at a younger age, I might have been confused into wanting it, because I wouldn’t have been able to understand the difference between wanting to wear a dress and wanting to be a girl, and the underlying implication was I’m worried you’ve been confused into transitioning because you forgot the difference between wanting to wear a dress and wanting to be a girl.
The best reason for transition, as I understand it, is “because I particularly wish it.” I had not been in the habit of thinking too carefully about my own feelings towards my womanhood until the day I asked myself if I had any opinions about my gendered future. I was more than a little surprised to find that I did! Such a realization set me on a path of mentally revisiting my childhood for clues, in the hopes that it would somehow endorse or dispel what I was experiencing in the present. My childhood was not especially useful to my adulthood, which I found bitterly disappointing. Some things seemed as if they could be interpreted differently in light of what I was currently debating; others—most—didn’t. One thing that came as a relief to me was the realization that absent any sort of narrative about biological destiny or the magic of chromosomes, everyone’s description of their internal sense of gender, their own sense of themselves as male or female or anything else, always sounded a little ridiculous, always depended at least in part on shorthand and substitution. Any attempts to justify or ground said feelings in externalities inevitably resulted in a sort of half-hearted list of hobbies, interests, toy preferences, instinctive reactions to certain forms of dress or speech or address. So this was not a uniquely trans failure of speech, at least, so much as an example of how difficult it is to put any sense of desire or being into words.
I wanted to transition, or at least I wanted to think about transition as an option, that much was clear. Attempting to retroactively extract my childhood for either justification or foreclosure did not leave me with a sense of possibility. What I wanted, what I needed, was to give myself as much freedom as possible to consider what was available to me, what I wanted, what I was willing to risk, to pay careful attention to myself, to say only: How are you right now? What direction would you like to shuffle in today? What is the next—and only the next—step that you are willing to take? I had to often remind myself that simply because I had not consciously experienced a desire to transition since I was very young, it did not necessarily follow that this was pure foolishness or a waste of time, a gratuitous bid for attention or distraction. Like my friends, I had to resist the urge to snatch my former-child-self out of the past and demand a permanent account of myself. Like those concerned parents, I had to allow myself a certain degree of fear, uncertainty, and even repulsion as I dealt with a number of feelings, impulses, desires, and ambitions that seemed at one moment totally contiguous with my lifelong understanding of myself and the next moment to be utterly foreign, entirely inexplicable, and—I dare say—of rapid onset.
My gender was stable, foundational, slow-moving, fixed, deep-rooted, intuitive, obvious, recognizable, immediately legible, and straightforward, until it wasn’t. I believed, I hoped, that any feeling that made its appearance known suddenly and violently would leave in the same way. If I simply sat tight and waited myself out, I would wake up restored to full and grateful cis womanhood any day now, relieved that I hadn’t done anything foolish—something irreversible— during my days of delusion. The cis self was ordered, sensible, calm, had an unsurprising past and a predictable future, a worthwhile place in the world; the trans self was panicked, adrift, without plan or explanation, Nebuchadnezzar scrabbling in the fields among the beasts. I thought often of the book of Daniel in those days, and the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation before his subjects in chapter 4, promising myself that as long as I held on and resisted transition long enough, I would eventually be restored to myself:
All this came upon King Nebuchadnezzar. At the end of the twelve months he was walking about the royal palace of Babylon. The king spoke, saying, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?”
While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.”
That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.
It is worth noting, perhaps, that after his seven-year tenure among the beasts of the field, Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding is returned to him, along with his “kingdom, honor, and splendor,” that additional majesty is added upon that which he already possessed as the king of Babylon, that he praises God and once again rules over his lost kingdom; namely, that everything he has suffered, everything he has lost, has been reversible. His king’s body becomes a beast’s body, becomes an ox’s body, becomes an eagle’s body, becomes a king’s body again, but a different kind of king’s body than he possessed before, because this king’s body has experienced madness, bestiality, isolation, language-lessness, the dew of heaven, particulation, abandonment, and restoration. It was only when I was able to relinquish the fantasy of nothing irreversible, of uninterrupted cis-ness, that I could begin to imagine a livable future for myself, a future that did not depend solely on risk management and self-abasement. Ever since I first articulated to myself a certain degree of gender-conflictedness, ever since I openly wondered whether I might have been having some sort of transgender-adjacent experience, the question had remained in my every waking thought. Not always at the forefront, not always obsessively, not even always distressingly, but once the thought had cleared the event horizon of my consciousness, it was never again unthought.
Once I was able to take the question of regret seriously I was finally, finally able to start moving ahead, to start telling other people about my internal experience, to start asking questions, to start imagining possibilities, to start exploring my options. Not taking regret seriously in the old punitive sense, as in, You probably don’t really want this, and the worst thing that could possibly happen is to start to transition, change your mind, and then stop, so anything else in the world is a better alternative than transition, but taking regret seriously in the sense of saying, If I try it, and I hate it, I’ll stop, and I’ll grieve what I’ve changed or lost; I’m prepared to accept the possibility of regret before I begin. So often, and in so many ways, I tried to act as if I were already regretting something I had not yet given up, asking myself if I wanted to find an immediate transition off-ramp, if I wouldn’t like to give up today, if I wouldn’t prefer to do something easier and less embarrassing than test-driving a new name at thirty-one years of age. The time for plausible name-changing had come and gone in the seventh grade, and I’d wasted all my transition chips on spelling “Mallory” with a single “L.” There was a time and a place for objecting to one’s gender, like waiting to interrupt a wedding in a romantic comedy; if I hadn’t protested my name or my body or my role in the great order of things when I was first tasked with them, then I certainly had no business trying to do so now.
The problem that a trans person, even the mere idea of a trans person, poses is the problem of time. We either speak up too early (What five-year-old really knows what being a boy or being a girl means? Let’s give kids a few years before forcing sex and gender on them and let them just be kids, for Chrissakes) or too late (I just don’t know where this is coming from. . . . I never would have suspected—you’re the last person I would have imagined, well, wanting to—), either trying to delay and deny puberty or demand a mulligan and try to redo it. Rapid-onset gender dysphoria: too trans, too fast, too furious. I don’t remember when I first learned that transition was something a person might pursue; I became briefly acquainted with my first trans person at twenty-two, and he struck me as a very nice man with whom I had absolutely nothing in common, such that it never occurred to me that the word “transgender” could possibly include the two of us. I would not meet another out trans person for another seven years. During my career as a woman, no one ever asked me how I understood myself to be one, but if they had, my answer would have been something along the following lines: Trans people are troubled, or make trouble, or feel trouble, and they know something doesn’t work right away. I may not be everyone’s idea of a good or a compelling or an attractive woman, but everyone around me agrees that that’s my job, and that I’m qualified for it, and if I weren’t qualified for it, I’d certainly know by now…
While I dismissed relatively quickly the idea of my childhood as a source of guidance, I returned over and over again to the scriptures of my youth, to ground and locate myself in the stories of transformation that were already familiar to me. Not because I thought I needed religious permission to transition, and not because I thought Christian history was the best source for a trans ontology, but because that history was mine, unalterably and permanently, no matter what I decided to do with my future. God-consciousness, too, is rapid-onset and strikes without warning: “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8).
The first letter to the Corinthians in the New Testament is attributed to Paul, a man whose life was changed in a single day upon encountering God on the road to Damascus. In the fifteenth chapter he addresses the question of what is to be done with bodies at the resurrection, whether flesh is a problem or an opportunity in the hands of the Lord:
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain–perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds.
There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.
—1 Cor. 15:35–49
The answer, then, for Paul, is the body-that-is exists always in anticipation of and conversation with the body-that-will-be, that all flesh is not the same flesh but that bodies please God, that death is always followed by growth, that there are many different types of glory, that dishonor may be followed by redemption, that all things spiritual originate in the goodness of the flesh, that our bodies might come to reflect both where we have been and where we are going. As my friend Julian puts it, only half-winkingly: “God blessed me by making me transsexual for the same reason God made wheat but not bread and fruit but not wine, so that humanity might share in the act of creation.”
“Behold, I tell you a mystery,” Paul writes later in that same chapter. “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”