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Buck Angel: 'I'm a Trans Elder. Trans Activists Don't Speak For Me'
The "man with a female past" speaks his mind about childhood transition.
A guest post by Buck Angel, which really should be in The New York Times—maybe they’ll republish it?
Every day, I’m called a new name. Sometimes it’s something obviously insulting, like bigot or transphobe. Sometimes it’s something more subtly designed to twist my knickers, like female. My critics assume this will wound me, because for the last 30 years, I have lived as a man. I medically transitioned at age 30, after what felt like a lifetime of struggle, and after many years of therapy and evaluation.
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Transition saved my life. But being called female doesn’t hurt me, because while I changed my body, I’m well aware that I can’t change my sex. And even though I’ve felt since I was a young child that I would have preferred to be—and should have been—born male, I don’t believe that children should medically transition. I’m one of the oldest and most visible female-to-male transsexuals in the country, but because of my views, today’s trans activists not only don’t speak for me, they try to cancel me.
Let’s rewind. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, a time of tomboys, when I was one of several typically masculine girls in short hair and sports shorts, running wild. There wasn’t much difference between me and those other tomboy girls back then; I beat up the boys and earned their respect. For the most part, my parents let me dress and live as a boy. The few times I had to wear a dress for church were torture, but other than that I had an excellent childhood.
My parents assumed my tomboyism was a phase I’d outgrow, but at puberty, I became deeply uncomfortable with my female body, a condition I had no name for back then. I lived for many years as a butch lesbian, and was an internationally successful androgynous model. Sometimes I wore suits, but when they stuffed me into a dress, I would spiral.
Eventually, the disconnect between my body and my sense of myself became too great. Sad and lonely, I turned to drugs, became homeless, engaged in prostitution, lost most of my friends and family, and hit bottom.
Once I got sober, and got therapy, I also got clarity. I told the therapist I felt that I should be—no, that I was—a man, and, unlike everyone else I’d ever said this to, she said, “I hear you. I believe you.” She gave me a diagnosis of what was then called gender identity disorder, which didn’t feel like a stigma. It felt like a lightbulb going off, which allowed me to understand and accept myself. I had a mental condition. That’s why I experienced anguish. Our next task was to figure out how to treat it.
Gender clinics were hardly in existence then. She couldn’t just affirm me and send me off for drugs and surgery with a letter. We spent over a year exploring the source of my distress and what it meant to be or live as a man or woman. She dug deep, she pushed back. And eventually, together, we decided that the potential benefits of transition were worth the risks. I had already passed the “real life” test. Now I went in search of medical treatments.
We filled out an inch-thick pile of paperwork for a program at Stanford, and never even received a reply. Eventually, we found an endocrinologist who explained to me that if I took testosterone, it would be experimental. But by that time, after 25 years of navigating the world as a differently-gendered person and more than a year of intensive psychological evaluation, I was ready.
I did something even more radical than transitioning once my body changed: I became an adult film star, a man without male parts, making space for nonconforming bodies, raising awareness and increasing body positivity for trans people. Some of my lesbian friends called me a traitor, and haters sometimes called me a tranny, but for the most part, I found acceptance and joy. Until about five years ago, I was happily living as a transsexual, or, as I call it, “a man with a female past.”
Then several things started to change. The word transsexual—a person of one sex who changes their body to appear more like the other—was eclipsed by the word “transgender,” an umbrella term that included everyone from tomboys gently rejecting stereotypes to trans women who’d had penectomies, plus myriad gender identities that seemed to have no locatable meaning. The idea that people could actually change sex, that sex was mutable or unreal, took hold in society, especially with young people.
Dysphoria is in the brain. If you’re skipping over the brain and going straight to the body, you’re not helping trans people.
Then, as some clinicians, including trans women, have admitted, a rash of teen girls started to declare themselves trans and transition; some said they’d had no mental health treatments before doing so. Then I started to hear about and from detransitioners, who’d taken cross-sex hormones or had breast or genital surgeries, not to cure some kind of organic dysphoria but because they’d been taught that if they felt uncomfortable with themselves or their bodies, maybe they needed to change them to match their brains. One study of detransitioners showed 55 percent felt they weren’t properly evaluated.
When it comes to gender dysphoria, talk therapy is more important than anything else. In fact, several European countries are now insisting that therapy is the primary treatment for it, with medical interventions under strict regulation. Physical transition is hard both on your body and mind; I should know. You have to make sure this is the right path for you by working with a therapist who will push back and question and explore the source of your desire to change. Dysphoria is in the brain. If you’re skipping over the brain and going straight to the body, you’re not helping trans people.
People accuse me of climbing the ladder and pulling it up behind me, transitioning and then trying to stop other people from doing so. That’s not my goal at all. I transitioned at age 30 and never looked back or felt I’d made a mistake, and I welcome adults who can adequately weigh the risks and benefits of transition to join me. But I never could have been sure without the struggle I navigated, without my brain growing mature enough to decide. Every choice I made was in adulthood.
One reason I’m so adamant about not medically transitioning children is that those tomboy girls I played with growing up, who were just like me back then, didn’t turn out like me. Some are gay women. Some are straight. Some feminized during or after puberty. Some stayed masculine. Childhood gender nonconformity or even gender dysphoria aren’t indications of any one adulthood. We can’t just slap the label trans on a kid who’s differently gendered and assume we know what path that kid should take for the rest of their life. In fact, several studies show that the vast majority of kids who are gender dysphoric in childhood resolve their distress by the end of puberty, and a majority of those grow up to be same-sex attracted.
Instead of focusing on identity, we should be focusing on the rigid gender stereotypes kids are absorbing every day. Give them the room I had to be masculine or feminine without presuming what it means about their futures. For suggesting these ideas, my own so-called LGBT+ “community” attacks me, tries to silence and intimidate me, accuses me of condemning children to a lifetime of suffering. But that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying it may be hard to live in their bodies, but it’s important that they try, because we don’t know how to forecast the future from their current struggle, but we know it’s important that they learn to navigate and overcome hardship.
Myself, I’m glad for my many years of struggling. Struggle made me strong. Now the struggle is so different. It’s a struggle to tell an inconvenient truth in a world that thinks truth is transphobic. It’s a struggle to keep my business going amid #cancelbuckangel hashtags. It’s a struggle to feel part of a community that would oust a pioneering elder for wrongthink.
I’ve already been through so much, and I can handle it. But I don’t think suppressing knowledge, dissent and discussion is going to create more space for kids struggling today. I think those kids are best served by having time and space to understand themselves, and not rush—or be rushed—to make decisions about who they are going to be.
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