Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Loved my Transgender Self

Almost exactly one year ago, I was going through unimaginable inner turmoil. On the verge of calling it quits and re-transitioning, I begrudgingly wrote a piece on transgender selflove titled “Sorry, I don’t love my transgender Self”. That was me trying to cope in a situation in which I felt that I had to keep my trans-ness away from me at all costs. What can I say – it came back with a vengeance.

Dear trans kids, dear future detransitioners:

Please don’t believe that the people who rant about the evil “transgender cult” are going to be nice to you if you live your life as a masculine lesbian or a feminine gay instead of coming out as trans. Self-acceptance comes in many shapes, and to you personally, it may or may not come in the form of a gender transition. There’s no vested interest in somehow making you transgender. Even on a practical level, there’s no way of making you trans either – partly because “transness” isn’t an objectively measurable quality like the color of your eyes. Being transgender, choosing the label and what it may infer today, is merely our means of making sense of what we already are. Only you can choose to embark on the path of transition or not, and chances are that in this society, the stakes will be against you if you do. There’s a simple reason why it is female detransitioners who by certain people are mourned as the “casualties” of gender transition. Look for the person who says that detransitioners – or even happy trans men – have “ruined themselves” and you will find the person who thinks that women with piercings and unnatural hair colors are ugly. Guess what: being trans is punished, just like being gay or choosing to be your real, unrestrained self in any way that contradicts certain social norms.

I myself am shockingly close to what would qualify as “true trans”. My story is one of early childhood gender dysphoria and having “always felt like that”. Even formally, I express my gender in the most classical ways: woman-me matches red lips with red nails while man-me loves a suit and an interwar era haircut. So, what am I really, a closeted conservative?

I have always put the greatest effort into looking clean, put together, successful. I am never ill or lazy, the two deadly sins of the working adult. I would never answer an e-mail at midnight or on a Shabbat, there’s a “schedule send”-function for that. There’s a fear inside me that won’t let go of me, the immigrant’s hereditary illness: the fear of never getting out of poverty, desperation, uncertainty. The fear of simply not making it. If hating yourself was a recipe for success, it should have worked on me by now. The myth of meritocracy and the belief in self-improvement are the poor man’s painkillers. I’ve had so much of them in my lifetime that they got me nauseous.

I am a reformed assimilationist. Pardon me if I still relapse occasionally. Aged 13, I started wearing nothing but black. Mind you, not a chains-and-leather emo outfit that Gen Z kids would probably approve of, but rather, a black nothingness: not a touch of color, no print, nothing that would make me easier to spot. Only in adulthood, I learned that Eastern European Jews of the 19th century established all-black fashion as an attempt to reduce visibility, something that Chassidic attire still reflects today.  

My political enemies don’t consider me an enemy, an opponent, but rather vermin that they wish to stomp out of existence. Some of them have no shame admitting this. So why would I attempt to even talk to them, let alone write for them, baring my soul? Most people who are deeply unsettled by the prospect of a gender self-ID law are the ones who call me anti-lesbian slurs in the streets. The saddest fraction of the recent backlash against transgender people’s rights must be the so-called “LGB alliance”: a minority of lesbians, gays and bisexuals suppressing their contempt for each other in order to form a coalition against those who they consider even less respectable. Because that’s what it comes down to: respectability in the eyes of the powerful. Bread crumbs from the table.

Self-loathing is an internal parasite. I’m still finding it hard to love the queer child that I was and the migrant that I am. If I didn’t receive any love from without, how could I find it within? The greatest class resentment I feel is the one against my own class. Letting go of it seems impossible after so many years of teeth-gritting. I wish I could say that I’m done with that. I’m not. But for now, let’s say: I’m willing to put up a fight, no matter how hopeless it seems. 

About Failing

“I haven’t been proud of myself much in my life”,

I say, with the kind of dryness that tries to belie pain. After taking a moment to think, I remember one such instance. By the late spring of 2019, my detransition had taken up full speed, progressing in painful bouts like a chronic illness. I remember my awkward, freshly cut bangs that I wore at the seaside. My thin body in the one bikini that would fit my completely flat chest and the stark green of my tattooed torso. It was my second time in the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean’s cold waters opened up and took me back, embraced me with force. I made myself swim in them, all the way to the tiny, red buoy, mindlessly determined regardless of my icy limbs. After everything I had gone through, my body was recovering: after the nightmarish fall from testosterone, after a full year of excruciating tattooing, after every cycle of starvation, she was still there. I was grateful, and a little proud.

Sometimes I think that my whole expertise is built on my ability to fail. I never even attempted to brand my detransition as a success story. From the start, I tried to trace exactly where and when something threw me off the correct trajectory, as if I had inherited the Soviet engineers’ instinct of my ancestors. I will try to share what I learnt about the experience of failing itself.

The first part is letting go of regret. History never repeats, and neither will your life cycle. The sooner the irreversibility of a past failure is accepted, the better. Every minute you spend on regretting is a minute lost. Your time is a resource, not to mention the emotional labor and pain of regretting. Think like a worker ant on a forest floor scattered with pine needles: setting priorities is crucial for organized action. Us biologists call it task allocation.

That was the easy part. Part two is where it gets ugly: we are now talking about shame. Sometimes, you fail because of circumstances that are out of your control. Other times, you are directly responsible. Ironically, it’s hard to say which is worse: knowing that you are to blame for your misfortune or knowing that you were powerless in the face of bad things happening to you. In either case, your self-esteem takes a critical hit. This is what throws you back to regret, the mind’s futile attempt at bargaining its way out of a past situation. If your sense of self was fragile to begin with, you may be thinking that it’s not you who failed, it’s you who ARE a failure.

Unfortunately, there is no universal cure for this kind of feeling. Psychotherapy, nourishing interpersonal relationships and seeing myself eventually succeed helped me personally. The most important part is carrying on no matter what, in small steps, like a soldier wading through a swamp. The sense of failure is a phenomenon restricted by time: eventually, the pain will fade away.

The third and last part won’t be a sweet tale of resilience and healing, as self-help literature sometimes implies. Living things are wonderful, their ability to recover has always amazed me. But some wounds will never heal: I won’t be able to relive my childhood, I won’t be able to undo the damage done to me by the people I used to love and trust and, worst of all, I won’t be able to shed the guilt of having hurt my loved ones myself. I can only find new ways to live with the damage.

My 2019 vacation was a true nightmare. While swimming in the cold ocean, I had felt a sense of freedom and power, just like during my first seaside holiday after the surgery. Upon stepping out of the water, this faded away. I returned to my partner who was waiting at the beach. This person didn’t truly love me back. No matter how much I tried to bend myself into shape for him, he would still be sour, disappointed in me. During one of our horrible fights on this particular trip, I said that the true reason why he was having so much trouble with me wasn’t that I was mentally ill, as he would always insist. I told him that the true reason was that I was a strong person, unwilling to change myself for him. I am now ashamed I wasn’t strong enough to leave him much sooner.

I feel like I am and am not responsible for this, at the same time: I had made bad decisions and also, I had been powerless while bad things had been done to me. The greatest insanity lies in the fact that I don’t wish for this relationship to have never happened, I wish for it to have gone differently, just like I wish my life hadn’t been so excruciating overall. I never think “Why did I not quit?”, I just always wonder “At any point I did what I thought was right, so why have I been hurt?”

Yes, why?

Carry me away, waves of the ocean. Heal my mind, pine needles on the forest floor. Sometimes, injustice strikes without a reason, all things are chance and some are bad luck. If survival means cutting off an arm or a leg, I will try it, because living with some body parts missing means more to me than not living at all. Survival is all I can pride myself in, and as a biologist, I can tell you that it is enough.

Those People Are Not Your Friends

Some detransitioners like the limelight. As long as their tweets fit the desirable narrative, they can be sure to be showered in “hugs”, “thoughts and prayers”, even “love”. The story goes like this: poor girl has been seduced and corrupted, terrible things are done to her innocent body by the wicked, gloved hands of barbaric medicine and pseudoscience. Eventually, she is saved morally, but too late, the damage is done. It won’t ever be like it was before, like it could have been.

Even those detransitioners who are clearly ambivalent about their path and loudly think of retransitioning are pressured into parroting slogans like “sex is real” or “don’t do drugs”, referring to prescription medicine for transgender people. It’s giving Christian Youth vibes in the saddest possible way – perhaps they aren’t allowed to have this “real sex” before marriage either.

I don’t question the pain some detransitioners experience, neither do I deny that sometimes, the medical system as we know it harms people. The treatment options we know today, including the diagnostic criteria, may fail or hurt some. Today’s topic is a different one, however. When you’re on your own and in pain, when you experience distress and regret about your transition, you’re looking for help and sometimes, for someone to blame. It’s human. The people who pretend to care about detransitioners know that very well.

To any person who is detransitioning or considers doing so: those people are not your friends. Their compassion is nothing but pity, reeking of poorly concealed schadenfreude and disgust. They don’t want you to be happy. They would rather see you dead than transgender, that is all.

Sadly, the trans community is not a world of peace and harmony. It’s a community of fate, so to speak, a group of very dissimilar people pressured into a small space with very few resources over which we are left to fight with one another. For those who are starved, it’s hard to remain civil. It may be hard to acknowledge another one’s pain, which may be much worse than one’s own. In the last couple of weeks, I have made mostly minor, cosmetic changes: I stopped wearing pink and red. I’ve had my hair cut into a classical men’s cut. I tried to walk and talk with sharpness and confidence. It’s not much, but it’s enough for people to treat me differently. It’s a difference like night and day, compared to when I think back to the time when I had just begun detransitioning. Ironically, I looked pretty much the same as today: a thin, pale young man with dark hair and sad eyes, a Tim Burton character of ambiguous gender. Today, I still pass as an androgynous woman a lot, even though nobody bats an eye when I go to the men’s room with my mask on. Back in 2016, I was wearing red lipstick and no face mask, so that nothing could protect me from the unkind eyes of those who mistook me for a trans woman. A trans male may be scoffed at or ridiculed for not being man enough – for being too much of a woman still, at least in someone else’s eyes. Acquiring womanhood, coming out as a woman, finally allowing oneself to literally just be as a woman, that’s a crime punished infinitely harder in this society. In the end, all transphobia can be boiled down to misogyny, but it hits some of us harder than others.

Detransitioners whom certain people consider to be “truly female” are only valuable to anti-trans groups if they are willing to strip themselves of their agency and humanity. When even friendly, open-minded journalists ask me whether my deceased breasts used to be large or small, I laugh and answer: “What does it matter?” Because it doesn’t. I don’t provide “before” pictures. I exist in the now, present with all aspects of myself. At the head end, my degree as a natural scientist, at the bottom, the dark undercurrent of my sexuality in sharp contrast to the alleged “purity of the victim”, a key component to most myths about detransitioners. I have no interest in bending myself into the shape of the hapless “young girl” for those who want to see me that way. If my resistance seems unfeminine to you, let me tell you that my gender isn’t part of it.

I see it merely as my moral duty. I stand by my people.

A JUDE with a German AUSWEIS

Today marks the day that I abolished my sex marker.

In hindsight, I can’t get over just how easy it was to get rid of my sex. I am a sexless Soviet chelovek now, very much like my mother wanted me to be. I may be too short, too dark and a little bit too nosy to fit the average propaganda poster, but on my passport pictures, I look dapper. Employable. Perhaps even like marriage material.

At the German civil registry office, a kindly clerk told me that I won’t be able to get a German birth certificate unless the identity of my father is documented in any form. Strange, very strange how this man manages to haunt me from beyond the grave, over and over again. The documents indicating my current identity are changed eventually. I wish I could say I was happy, but the only thing I really felt was relief.

My next challenge was actually getting the AUSWEIS in physical form – an impossible task, I realized when walking downstairs at the Amt. The crowd of people that had assembled in the lobby before was standing in a neat, if ridiculously long line now. Wordless, tired, painfully Slavic people: women with large bags and small children, young men in Adidas. I felt a pang of compassion and horror in my chest, like I do when I hear a stranger’s Russian speech through my earphones while commuting. It hasn’t been like this before. It started when the war came to my city.

A registry office in a different district had a short-notice appointment the same day, an opportunity I jumped on immediately. Once again, I was waiting at a German Amt, once again I had to pretend to be polite and calm while screaming inside. The clerk seemed quite gay. The moment he realized who and what I was, he really wanted to get it right – finally, one of THOSE people came to his desk, an important moment for us LGBT-queues, right? I wish, I thought, but you and I, we are not the same. If only the software complied. It didn’t.

He and two colleagues excused themselves to a back room. Hearing their unintelligible murmurs, I was in panic. “We’ve got a live one”, I pictured them saying. I panicked so much that I pointlessly started a fight with Beloved in the messenger. It seemed to me that all people around me – blond families and Turkish men alike – were literally just random people at the German Amt, while I was a cornered animal trapped in a human skin.  

When they came back, I was ushered to the desk of a new clerk, who had to bear with me in a state of utter distress and resulting hostility. I felt like I had made it so far only to be turned away in the last moment. Beloved will never know what it’s like to be a JUDE OHNE AUSWEIS, I was thinking in my helpless, childish rage, she can’t know! But how wrong I am about my almost-Jewish Russian bride, how wrong about her and her painfully Slavic, good-for-nothing, scrawny little future husband who jokes about wearing his Adidas to the wedding.  

In the death throes of my prior relationship, my ex would get all worked up over me saying that he will never understand what this war really means for an Eastern European person. You and I, we are not the same. We will never be. I may look very dapper, I may move with ease and quickness, unlike the tired people waiting in the lobby. “Treppensteigen ist eine effektive Fitnessübung”, a sticker says at the bottom of the stairs in the Amt. Kafka must be quietly weeping in his Czech grave.

I left the Amt successful, yet disheartened. My AUSWEIS will take two or three weeks to process, time that I don’t have. The blond family applying for passports at the desk right next to mine could never understand. I overheard their interaction while waiting. For the first time, the older child had the chance to sign for himself. It was sweet. They don’t know what it’s like to not exist without an AUSWEIS. For them, the processing time is literally just a formality. But maybe it’s just me and my traumatized Jewish feelings acting up, maybe Beloved is right and I do have a right to exist in this world, maybe even the right to marry and to procreate.

I walk away into the wet concrete mirroring the afternoon sun. I don’t feel happiness, only relief.

An Experimental Cure

My psychologist tells me that my transition was “one great biomedical experiment”, leaving me both bewildered and enraged. With a scientist’s instinct, I ask: “What hypothesis could be proven by an ‘experiment’ like that?”  

The hypothesis in question – we call it “H1” – could have been that I am and have always been a man. This way, my transition could be framed as righting a wrong by allowing me to live as a man despite some of my features still betraying me as transgender. This is the traditional approach requiring me to experience at least a degree of inner distress over my body and its functions. I fulfill this and anything else demanded by the transmedicalists: early onset, persistence of symptoms, severe dysphoria over the parts of my body that are typically considered sexed. Where exactly are the rapid onset teenage girls who transitioned for the fun of it? Are they in the room with us right now?

The understanding of “transsexuality” as a curable illness is only about a century old, a co-product of the discovery of “sex hormones” and the medicalization of sexual orientations. It is no higher truth, and arguably, not the best ground for treating a population that is already particularly vulnerable. In our society, medical treatment is always given within a framework of power imbalance. This gives plenty of leeway for things that are not exactly medical abuse, but certainly worth criticizing. When you call my true nature pathological and every anti-trans attack on me the natural response of a “normal” society against “abnormal” me, how can you expect me to confidently assert myself? How can you expect me to be nice, non-confrontational, poised and put together when I enter the doctor’s office?

During my years of transition and detransition, I grew into the role of a medical patient in a way that perhaps only chronically ill people know. Mind you, I’m not implying that transitioning itself made me ill – on the contrary, what I learned were the skills necessary to pass as ill enough in order to receive the treatment I need. That I am my own person and capable of my own decisions is generally not to be uttered during the medical appointment. Implying that society itself may be the main cause of my distress amounts to heresy. It is the transgender patient who is ill by default and they must acknowledge this fact. Only then, the cure can begin.

The null hypothesis “H0” would be that I never was and never will be a man. In this case, my failure to live up to the expectations put on me by my health care providers is yet another case in a statistic proving that medical transition as we know it is a scientific dead end. If medicine and science were forced to say this, all people experiencing their sex the way I do would be left on their own, with no help.

Imagine living in a nightmare in which you are trying to tell the world a fundamental truth about yourself and everyone is either laughing it off or getting angry at you. This is the premise of the transgender experience in a world in which not just extremist fringe groups, but the core values of society are at odds with what you are. Even many of those who are earnestly trying to battle misogyny will fall back on the notion that sexism itself has a “natural” basis rather than being the cause and result of societal power relations. Why are some so eager to insist on this?

From what I have seen, some people will have their own, deeply personal anxieties over gender and sexuality. No true scientist will engage in the “nature vs. nurture” debate with you, simply because it’s speculative and futile. I can’t tell if my psychologist is a good Freudian by training or because of his own relationship with his parents. In contrast, psychologists have truly dissected me, digging into my psychological insides with both hands and gorging themselves on any awful thing of my past. Some did the same thing more respectfully, but nonetheless without realizing that if you crack open any human being, you will find difficult fantasies, problematic behavior, specks of dirt and darkness. It was merely my status as “the transgender patient” that required them to scan me with such diligence. I was in the position to defend myself because I wanted the thing that “young girls” are not supposed to want, if you know what I mean. Bodily autonomy is what I’m talking about.

Even in my detransitioned form, my existence as a transgender person is a problem for society because I am the proof that not only social gender, but bodily sex itself is malleable, temporarily or permanently. A scary prospect! What if the “sex-based” oppression some consider to be grounded in “natural” attributes isn’t so natural after all? My transition was never one of the master’s tools, that’s why white-coated doctors were eager to regulate it, acting as dispensers of the cure who can withdraw it upon me showing disobedience. Of course, any medical intervention should be undertaken with caution, knowledge and good patient-physician communication. But barely any medical treatment I can think of has the explosive political potential of gender transitions. The reason is simple: what we were taught about “biological sex” and its ramifications in society was lies, and it took me two gender transitions to really, fully see it.

I was left to conclude my experiment in somber privacy, without anyone truly listening. In the end, both hypotheses had to be rejected: in the present, I am and I am not a man. Today, when I look into the mirror, the man who I used to be is staring back at me. He’s in there, somewhere. Very similarly, I could see woman-me through the male features of my face some years ago. In my darkest hours, I thought it meant that I am truly the woman whom I couldn’t get rid of, but I was wrong. No single physical or psychological attribute of me is enough to describe who I truly am: a woman, a man, many things, not truly anything. I know this will upset those who hoped to hear a different kind of truth from me.