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Gender Dysphoria, Transsexuality, and Shame

Updated on August 14, 2014

Dostoevsky's Ghost

or, Crying and Punishment in Middlesex

I can’t even imagine what I am thinking when I say “I don’t care what other people think, I really don’t.” I say this all the time in many different ways and sometimes using quite graphic language. Now that I think about it, though, I believe I doth protest too much. It turns out that I do care, deeply. I even care what my Mom thinks about what other people think about me. I am apparently ashamed of myself. I don’t want my Mom to be ashamed of me, and though she says she isn’t, she isn’t willing to allow my secret to become known. She fears what other people will think of me. I think some of her fear regards what others will think of her, and certainly she doesn’t want me to get hurt.

The irony is that I am hurting myself psychically and, yes, physically, to a degree that would make any masochist proud. By physically, I mean throwing my health out the window because I don’t care if I live or die. Smoking and eating poorly and not exercising, because I just don’t give a shit anymore. I wonder if I would be better off risking some near-death experience, even death itself, than remain isolated and ashamed and gangrenous with self-loathing. I know I would be better off. I know it. But do I have the inner strength to take the risk? My experience of inexperience says no.

I imagine having to escape the clutches of a murderer by jumping from the top of one twenty storey building to the next across the alley. It is a wide chasm, but not impossible, and if I don’t try I will surely die, whimpering, curled up at the edge of the roof. But if I were to think about it objectively, based on the odds and my own experience, this psycho-social chasm turns out to be not so wide and the drop not so precipitous. The odds tell me that, at worst, I am looking at a broken leg – rejection. But there is the small but very real chance that I could land badly, very badly, in the worst possible way. I could meet someone whose own shame is so great that I am beaten to death for being different in just such a way that their own shame is inflamed to a murderous degree.

I see that the odds of this are so slim as to be nearly negligible – like dying in an airplane crash. And if I don’t get on that airplane, I will never see Rome, or Paris, or London. To allow shame and fear to keep me home, keep me in my mind and in my room, how slow and miserable a death that would be. Slow, that is, if I don’t kill myself in the meantime.

Unlike Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero in “Crime and Punishment,” I have not killed anyone. Within me, though, I contain the potential to make other people uneasy, perhaps question their beliefs about gender, their most basic of assumptions of which any disruption can cause a fit of confused anger, disgust, hatred and violence. But, like Raskolnikov, I have allowed my fears to haunt me into secluded oblivion and near-psychosis.

Secrets are Hazardous to Your Health

Everyone wants to be liked. If I don’t tell anyone about my transgendered nature, if I avoid relationships altogether, I can preempt rejection and ridicule. It seems that I fear rejection more than death itself. But, in my process, have I rejected myself? Do I feel so different, so unworthy of a place in the world, unworthy of love, that I ashamedly throw myself into this dank dungeon of self-hatred? How much of my isolation, anxiety and fear is the result of this self-hatred and how much due to believing others will hate me? How much do I want to avoid giving people discomfort by my mere presence let alone chancing the revelation that I am not what I appear to be?

I feel like I don’t belong anywhere. So I don’t go anywhere, don’t do anything, avoid contact with people. I have wasted a life, a promising life, to avoid the possible derision of others. Why do I give them that power? So what if they don’t like me? So Fucking What? I ask that question as an intellectual exercise, because I know what the answer has always been – I will die! It’s not true and I know that, yet I live as if it were. Funny thing is that, in reality, I have only been lightly rejected a couple times in my entire life. Almost every person that has gotten to know me just a little bit actually likes me. And those that I have told my secret to have invariably been accepting and often cared about me even more. Granted, I have been selective. My family has accepted my transformation to a miraculous degree. I realize that I have been very lucky. So, why do I continue to hide away in fear?

I know I need to be honest about who I am and what I have been. That is the only way I will be able to even begin to crawl out of this self-imposed prison cell. It would obviously not solve all my problems, but it would be a good start. This secret is killing me. I can intellectualize that it is nobody’s business, but that has never translated into self-acceptance or peace of mind. The final question is, do I attempt to accept myself first, or do I out myself and hope others accept me, knowing who I am? Will the acceptance of others lead me to self-acceptance and a more fulfilling life, or would I be sharing too much information in possibly vain hopes of validating my existence?

The truth is that nearly every transsexual finds it necessary to reveal their secret at some point. No matter how successful they have been at life, even passing perfectly in society, the secret begins to eat them up. And it still acts as a secret even if the person isn’t passing particularly well. Most people have an inkling, but it is an ambiguous, sluggish, discomfiting silence that reigns. The irony is that it is the ones that pass perfectly that are often hardest hit by the psychic consequences of holding this secret. Because it is then a true secret. Others do not suspect a thing, but the transgendered person knows they are different, and in a way not often acceptable to society.


Sex and gender, which usually correspond, are the most fundamental identifying characteristics of a human being. From birth we are programmed both biologically and socially to follow prescribed patterns of behavior. A little drift is acceptable, but when one is completely at odds with the norms, society will engage in a brutal method of ostracism. When you mess with a person’s or society’s fundamental assumptions, you can expect extreme and highly emotional opposition.

Those of us in the LGBT community know this all too well. And though I have encountered only rare and relatively muted antagonism (I have lived in the shadows, after all), the knowledge of the possibility of more awful consequences has had a debilitating effect. And being merely tolerated is nothing more than a slower death – the erosion of self-esteem by the acid rain of public disdain.

The happy truth is that the reluctant toleration offered by society as a whole, and even the outward disgust displayed by small groups, can become acceptance and even love at the level of the individual. And that is how we usually interact, one on one. So if one were able to somehow eschew the dictates of social mores and focus on the individual, fear could be lessened. But, can I find it within me to take the risk with each individual person who presents an opportunity for friendship? It all remains to be seen.


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