Unscrupulous Hugs

I’ve written several posts on here about transgender identity. Not being transgender myself, my choice of topic prompts the obvious question of why I should choose to write on the subject and what authority I have to do so. I don’t plead any specific authority or expertise on the matter, not even from personal experience, so we can dispense with that concern immediately. Rather you have my confession that I write on the subject as a dilettante only. You may therefore take what I say in this regard with however much salt you deem necessary. Mind the hypertension, though! On the question of why I choose this topic, suffice it to say that I’m human, deeply bothered by the discrimination and physical violence meted out to transgender individuals, and committed to the proposition that the sovereign will and personal bodily autonomy of everyone—especially the beleaguered trans community—to live as they choose for themselves should remain beyond question. I suppose, in the abstract and as a Satanist, I would also contend that the constellation of concerns surrounding transgender identity and rights—individual autonomy, self-making, “artificiality” versus “authenticity”, normativity—all comprise key concerns for Satanism as a whole. That makes this topic a natural fit for thinking through and about Satanic values and living, at least as I see it.

So I was surprised when a Satanist friend of mine who has proven a particularly close and avid reader of my blog commented one day on my Danica Roem piece that he skipped over that particular post, as he’s not as interested in the subject of transgender rights as I seem to be. He then offered that he feels put off by the topic, since he regards transgender individuals as “not really normal.” He said that, to him, the drive of a trans person to seek gender reassignment surgery was akin to what is classified as a psychological disorder that goes under various intimidating names like apotemnophilia (Greek for ‘loving to cut things off yourself’), xenomelia (Greek for ‘feeling like your limbs are foreign to you’), and Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID) (English for ‘not identifying with the physical wholeness imposed by a body that has all the parts it either came equipped with at birth or was programed to develop later’). Basically, my friend likened being transgender and willing to transition physically to the desire for voluntary amputation due to feeling that some part of oneself doesn’t belong there. In one article by trans author Natalie Reed, I’ve seen this line of reasoning referred to as the “freak who wants to cut his dick off” motif. As you might imagine, the general feeling Reed expresses about this trope is that it is inaccurate, insensitive, and stigmatizing to trans women. To find out—in vivid and graphic, yet poetic, detail—just how anatomically wrong this notion is, I encourage you to give trans woman poet Roz Kaveney’s “Valediction” a read (hear the poet read it herself here at the 2:59 time mark). I reacted harshly to my friend’s invoking the idea at the time, immediately catching what I thought was a whiff of transphobia. Apart from the source, the rest of what made the comment so shocking to me was that, first of all, I had never heard of this comparison being made before, nor, secondly, of the condition with the imposing Greek and English names. Obviously, I wasn’t familiar with popular media articles on the subject of BIID like this one from The Atlantic or this one from The New York Times. In the end, I decided that I valued our friendship enough to at least read up on this frightening condition with truly terrifying—at least to me—implications to see what my friend was on about.

I came away from my readings on the condition itself  and the medical ethics of permitting and performing voluntary amputations—as well as other so-called “controversial choices” involving bodily autonomy—with a feeling of even greater disquietude than when I had gone in. I felt especially troubled to find that experts in the field actually do draw comparisons between BIID and what they dub Gender Identity Disorder (GID), identified as the condition that underlies individuals’ desire to reshape themselves in terms of gender and sexual identity. Even within the trans community, there has been some grappling with the uncomfortable ways BIID and being transgender seem to converge: both involving an individual’s mental map of their own physical being simply failing to accord with a topography foisted on them by the facticities of their birth and subsequent physical and psychosocial development.

Both BIID and being transgender appear to involve individuals wrestling with the quintessential human problem that I’ve written about elsewhere of feeling caught in some profound expectancy gap, in this case as regards their physical person. “‘It does not belong to you, this part of you, of your body. It is not yours,’” writes one author in a vivid (though possibly fictional) account of BIID. The writer continues:

“There is an antagonism between him and it: while he is desiccated, it thrives; while it lives, he lives longing to rid himself of it. He needs to cut it off, sever it from his self entirely, and he knows that when he does, he will finally feel complete.”

In a similar vein, transgender woman and YouTuber Contrapoints spoke in a recent video dealing with a particularly ugly theory of what motivates transgender women about how her previous male sexuality felt burdensome and confining and how, once she began hormone replacement therapy, she felt suddenly freed of the crushing weight of it, resulting in a great relief. These individuals’ desires to modify, change, and alter themselves arise not from some alarming motivation to mutilate or literally dis-integrate their physical and psychological being, but rather quite the opposite: they desire precisely integration between the map of self in their heads and the actual terrain of their physical and psychosocial existence in the world they share with others. When denied the ability to make the choices they feel necessary in order to achieve such integration, these individuals sometimes default to behaviors that are far more obviously harmful to themselves. A transgender woman I’m friends with on Facebook, for instance, has written about how, had she not begun transitioning, she would surely have posed a physical threat to herself and likely would have ended up dead by her own hand. Roz Kaveney wrote in a poem entitled “Transition”:

“…Imagine my surprise // who learned from five short years, a surgeon’s knife / lessons so cheap, they might have cost my life.’’

Meanwhile, the case studies of BIID cited in the Atlantic article mentioned above include individuals who, finding themselves unable to convince a specialist to perform their desired amputation, resorted to such lengths as traveling to Mexico for a black-market amputation, only to die of gangrene in a motel room later, or using a homemade guillotine to sever an undesired arm, then threatening to repeat the process should doctors try to reattach it. A recent study of prepubescent transgender children in North America published in 2015 demonstrated in an experimental setting that the youths both view themselves and desire to live according to their expressed gender. In this regard, the trans children display a self-conception and behavioral standard according to their gender identity that makes them “statistically indistinguishable from cisgender children of the same gender identity.” As irony would have it, the basic drive behind both of the “conditions” known under the monikers GID and BIID appears to be a craving for wholeness and the elimination of a gap in expectation that can prove—quite literally—killer.

The bedeviling thing about expectancy gaps, though—those interstices or chasms between what individuals want for themselves and their world and the way the physical and phenomenological world around us actually shakes out at any given moment—is that they often arise from an interplay of multiple expectations of the same reality. A trans person expects the ability to live according to a gender expressed, if nowhere else, in their prevailing mental model of self, while everybody else expects them to live according to the gender signaled by their genitalia and birth certificate. Someone with BIID expects a body whose felt “completeness” entails the loss of something that everyone else regards as necessary for completeness. In each case, the existence of the one set of expectations proves the frustration of the other.

You have one set of feelings about yourself and your activity in the shared world, but when you interact with that external world, you find that others have quite their own sets of expectations about you and your activity. Because everyone is constantly seeking integration between their own expectations (their being-alone in their own minds) and the external world (their being-with others in a shared physical reality), the deontic modality arises to express frustration over perceived expectancy gaps and the hope for bridging them by slapping the words “should” and “ought” over everything. The transgender individual or person with BIID thinks “that things are not the way they ‘ought’ to be,” even as other members of society, particularly those in positions of governmental authority, think that people and bodies “ought” to remain and behave according to how they came at birth—and they’re willing to pass laws to enforce those expectations. The social world thus opens up to us as a treacherous, pockmarked terrain of expectancy gaps and countless bridges-to-nowhere laid across them. As each such bridge marks someone’s deontic prescription for avoiding gaps and closing chasms between their expectations of reality and reality itself, you may as likely find one laid right over the particular breach where you reside for the moment, such that not only does it do you no good in closing your particular rift, but it even blocks your egress, only prolonging your imprisonment inside.

Transgender individuals and those in the grips of BIID report feeling great internal conflict over who and what they are (and aren’t), and their own state of inner turmoil contrasts signally with the apparent lack of similar tumult in other people all around them. No prevailing narrative in media, myth, or religion tells such people that their struggle is normal or natural or a rite of passage or even just something other people have also had to grapple with. There are usually no clear role models with helpful encouragement or advice for them to turn to or emulate, at least not at first. So they feel alone and awkward in their aloneness in the presence of others. And should these individuals ever dare untangle the gnarly knot of their feelings out loud, more often than not either the deafening cricket-chorus of speechless failure to understand or, perhaps worse, the vociferous denunciation of their feelings as not in accord with expectations of how they should feel and behave with regards to themselves as whole beings serve to sketch even more precisely—and in blackest charcoal—the contours of the growing, dark chasm in expectancy into which they feel themselves fallen. So the gaps they already experience internally only widen and deepen as they grow in the world and interact with others.

Traditional religions provide a key source of expectations of the world and our behavior within it, as well as posited sets of norms and rules designed to bridge the gaps between such expectations and reality. So it comes as no surprise to find that the concept of “bridge-maker” holds special prominence in religious language. We find it everywhere from the classical Roman pontifex maximus or ‘greatest bridge-maker,’ a term still in use, via the truncated form Supreme Pontiff, to designate the Roman Catholic Pope who, at least in theory, stands at the crossroads of heaven and earth, to the Jain concept of a tirthankara or ‘ford-maker,’ usually explained as one who fords the turbulent waters of samsara. In practical, earthly terms, these individuals’ bridge-making promises a crossing over from disfavored to approved ways of thinking and behaving. It thus flows from, and buttresses, Just World Theory.

Religion isn’t the only source for scripts of expectation according to which people tend to evaluate the world around them, however. Such scripted expectations also stem from other societally sanctioned sources like the notion of so-called “common sense,” usually deployed in polemical contexts, and just plain social convention. Such expectancy scripts provide much, if not all, of the underpinning for the concept of normativity. They are, in essence, shared, ritualized, and self-consciously enacted expectations of the world. As a result, not all expectancy gaps and the frustrations they engender are created equal, not by a long shot. Some gaps in expectation are more tolerable, and some frustrations over expectancy gaps are less tolerable, than others. For instance, in a world dominated for millennia by cisgender, heterosexual males, cis-het male expectations of gender and gender roles have likewise held dominance. Cis-hetero men often feel positively entitled to gratification of their romantic impulses and sexual drives, as well as to being able to express such impulses and desires openly without reprisal or criticism. Women, meanwhile, have been taught and encouraged to tolerate gaps in their own expectations as to sexual fulfillment, the (in)fidelity of their partners (even in marriage), and their bodily autonomy in social and occupational spaces, as well as to remain relatively silent about these gaps and their frustrations. The confluence of tolerance for gaps in female expectation on such matters and intolerance of gaps in male expectation provides the churning headwaters of what has become the roiling torrent of the #MeToo movement. An elementary school in Ogden, Utah, where female students had been exhorted and all but required to say “yes” to requests to dance from boys at a “voluntary but encouraged” Valentine’s Day mixer recently came under fire on this very score for seeming to reinforce a culture where female consent to the romantic approaches of men receives no focus or sanction.

It’s no coincidence, then, that attempts to “understand” both transgender women and those who qualify for the diagnosis of BIID have tended to default to a very cis-hetero male perspective, seeing both as deviations of the male sex drive. The recent video from Contrapoints I referred to above discusses one “scholarly” opinion on the motivations of transgender women that reduces their drive to transition either to a homosexual desire to be with straight men as a woman or an autoerotic desire to become women for their own sexual fulfillment, this latter motivation receiving the impressive-sounding Neo-Greek label autogynephilia. Either way, such an “understanding” reduces what most trans women experience as an irreducibly complex tangle of pre-transition conflict over themselves and their sexuality to a simple, good old paraphilia, yet another ominous and intimidating Greek word which just means “sexual perversion” (from a cis-het male point of view, of course!). Contrapoints draws attention to this feature of the “theory,” noting that the concept of autogynephilia entails not just the reduction of transitioning as a trans woman to a male desire for female sexuality, but also a demonizing of that very female sexuality as essentially a form of vanity, regarding a woman’s desire to feel sexy—something many cis-gender heterosexual women attest to in purchasing and wearing lingerie “just for me”—as deviant and narcissistic. Discussions of BIID, which, as you’ll recall, was originally labeled apotemnophilia or ‘the love of cutting things off of oneself’, have also tended to view the condition through the lens of paraphilia. For an example of how treatment of BIID from a popular, traditional, and socially-sanctioned perspective tends to concentrate on paraphilic and sexual aspects of the condition, see this Patheos post by a conservative Baptist professor of Christian ethics. Personal accounts of BIID, meanwhile, evidence a much greater range of motivational complexity, including a striking explicit and implicit preference for amputated bodies that differs from the preference for complete bodies demonstrated experimentally among both amputee and so-called “normal-limbed” control groups. Individuals with BIID sometimes report experiencing their pre-amputation bodies as “overcomplete.”

Of course, another clear bias of expectation betrayed in writing and thinking about BIID comes from ableism and its normative expectation that what constitutes a whole or complete body is, among other things, intact limbs. One interesting critique of this notion comes from the experience of Latvian-born pop star and model Viktoria Modesta who, at age fifteen, decided she wanted an amputation of her left leg. Due to doctors’ botched handling of a dislocated hip Modesta suffered while being born, the future singer ended up with a left leg that was a full 7cm shorter than her right by age 6. Modesta underwent nine major operations on her left leg before age 11, including three attempts at lengthening it. Between the time she decided that her damaged leg “was just not fitting” and “felt odd” and Modesta’s finding a surgeon willing to perform the voluntary amputation, five years would pass. In 2014, Modesta “came out” as an amputee pop star in a flashy, ultramodern music video. In the video, she struts around and dances in prostheses that are, alternately, metallic, light-up (and drawing moths!), and an elongated pyramidal spike that doesn’t even attempt to mimic a “real” human leg in the slightest. When Modesta dances as a ballerina with the spiked prosthesis atop a glass floor, she intentionally drags the striking limb over the surface, creating the kind of grating, high pitched sound tines of a fork make when scratched across a dinner plate. Twice, Modesta stomps with her prosthetic limb on the glass floor, causing it to crack beneath the spike’s point. There is absolutely no attempt made here at “passing” or “living in stealth,” in fact quite the opposite. There is a pride, power, and defiance to Modesta’s moves, with no apologies made for the sound which manages both to set your teeth on edge and to captivate you completely.

Personally, I can scarcely imagine the courage it takes to be willing to change yourself so utterly in pursuit of the kind of life you want and feel you need to live that you’re willing to make the sorts of choices that transgender people make everyday. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be willing not only to undergo speech therapy in order to learn a new speaking or singing voice for your daily use, but also to take hormones that change you both physically and emotionally. And then, after all of that, to submit yourself to voluntary surgery that may alter your vocal chords, facial structure, and genitals—the most public and most intimate and private parts of you. I can’t imagine what it means to wake up to the realization that you’ve lived your life up to some point in an imprisoning chrysalis and that “deciding” to break out means recruiting a surgeon’s scalpel to literally cut you open so something that feels more right can emerge. Even after surgery to alleviate gender dysphoria, trans individuals often require additional psychiatric and physical care and sometimes face higher risks of mortality and suicidal ideation than the general population. And I haven’t even mentioned the changed social realities trans people face, the possible disapproval and discrimination by peers and the public at large, and even the physical violence that is increasingly common in today’s world.

The callousness of pretending that individuals facing such grave and momentous decisions constitute some kind of public policy issue, open for debate and legislation by others, seems to me akin to that of pretending that the question of whether rape victims who become pregnant by their attackers can abort the fetuses so conceived is a public issue. When people find themselves in such desperate circumstances, they are at their most raw, their most vulnerable, their most human. By treating them not as the unique and suffering people they are at these times but as principles to be debated and quibbled over, you erase their individuality and the uniqueness of their personal struggles. By laying a bridge of your own manufacture over the expectancy gap into which such folks have fallen, you actually close off one of their principle possible avenues of escape: through acknowledgment and recognition of their plight by yourself and others on the outside.

What I feel I can best do for such individuals is simply to put away my microscope, the instruments of my intellectual poking and prodding, and the wounding scalpel of whatever scruples I hold. I can lay aside awhile my own normative principles and definitions and just open up my arms in an offer and attitude of hugging. I can extend the long, affirming embrace of truly unscrupulous hugs, hugs that are devoid of morality and ethical debate, hugs that offer no advice or wisdom or guidance, hugs that demand nothing of the recipient beyond their consent to physical contact and everything of the giver, who must be willing to squeeze tight a world and its denizens that he didn’t create, cannot control, and may not fully understand or personally identify with. The unscrupulous hugger must take it all in, in silence, and hold it close for no purpose of his own, but just because it feels good sometimes, in the midst of uncertainty, to be hugged and the other person could sure use one right about now, with all they’re going through.

The unscrupulous hug isn’t an act of altruism. The hugger may just get something great in the bargain as well. She may remember, at least for a moment, that all expectations fail—even the grand, high poobah expectations of religion and social convention (that’s what theodicy and the court system are for after all!). She may recall that the human condition consists in nothing quite so much as the failure of expectation and that, when everything in the world inside our heads lies in pieces, it’s often only the flesh we inhabit, reaching out to other, similar flesh for a moment of tenderness on the outside, that can hold it all together, if just for that moment.

Unscrupulous hugs sink deep, peeling back the onion layers of revulsion and disgust, judgment and rational assessment, until we’re all just the weeping eyes and runny noses of a good, cleansing cry: no solutions, no clarity, no resolutions, just an instant of being together as the incontrovertible, inscrutable, and irreparable humans we are.

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