Columns » Eva Hayward

When love gets difficult

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Love and desire: They are very much at stake in the question "Should I become a woman and risk causing pain to my wife and children?" posed to Chuck Klosterman, who writes The Ethicist column for The New York Times.

The Massachusetts woman who posed the question is struggling with the responsibilities of familial love and the desire to transition sexes—and is dangerously unhappy with these competing forces. Foolishly (unethically?), Klosterman advises her to ask the question, "Is your psychological damage from gender dysphoria greater than the psychological damage that its restoration will inflict upon the lives of any (or all) of your children? If the answer is yes, proceed. If the answer is no, don't do it. Your sadness is tragic, but at least it's confined to yourself."

Admittedly, I don't know what it is to have children, nor do I have a family as this woman does, but I do know something about sex transitions. First and most important, changing your sex is rarely a choice or a willful act. This isn't to say that transsexuality is a purely psychological or biological drive; it may be, but I just don't know. Rather than sorting though the nature and nuture, I tend to think of sex as natural in the absolute broadest sense of the word—as in, everything under the sun is natural, including plastic, language and war, made possible by the conditions of being Earth-born.

To change sex is the result of many combined forces. And such a transition is non-negotiable.

How, then, can Klosterman tell this woman to not transition for the benefit of her family? She is part of her family; her misery also becomes part of the family. How can such misery be confined? More troubling, Klosterman ignores the very real possibility that she may kill herself by forgoing transition. Surely, Klosterman can't think her suicide would be less damaging to her family than her transition? Honestly, what can Klosterman and other journalists, cultural critics and feminist philosophers know about this woman's conundrum?

Hundreds, maybe thousands of autobiographies have been written by trans people, attempting to narrate what is beyond a simple of story of "trapped in the wrong body." Trans stories are more than this, even as we feel we can only vaguely suggest them to our audience. This sounds unkind, but you cannot know how many times I am asked, "So, what is it like?"

As I have said elsewhere, transitioning starfished me—a purposeful invention because words failed to describe what was intentional and beyond intent. For me, sexual transitions (and there are many of them, not just one, nor only in one direction) were both extreme experiences and hardly the whole story. But, the starfish seemed a good coauthor.

For some starfish, reproduction and limb regeneration function similarly. New generations of starfish emerge from self-amputation; that is, this invertebrate generates another starfish from the self-severed limb. Although the starfish and I are obviously different, we are both effects of life loving invention, difference and potential.

The starfish cut—and my cut—is more about emergence, desire, self-care and love. Starfished, a clumsy poetic device, turning a noun into a verb, was my way of trying to explain how transitions are more than any one set of acts, more than any one organ or condition, and need to be understood as part of larger, ongoing worldly processes.

So rather than telling this woman, as Klosterman did, to contain her "tragedy"—oft overused term when talking about the "transgender condition"—what would happen if she was encouraged to understand her becoming, her transition as part of a larger story of possibility? She is altering more than her appearance and her social meaning, for she is also participating, like many others, in joyously opening up our collective conditions to difference, to change, to the future. Isn't this love?

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