The number of people referred to gender identity services has increased six times in the last 10 years. Of course, medical referral rates are never an exact guide to the frequency with which issues arise in the general population, as people can be referred more frequently because it has become more acceptable to seek such referrals. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there really has been a significant increase in the number of people who want to change gender.
People who want to change gender are actually quite diverse, and it is hard to know how best to subdivide them. The majority are men, and it is male transgendering that I will focus on here; I think female transgendering may be rather different. There is also an important distinction between those who want to adopt a new gender comprehensively and to live it out in all aspects of their lives, and those who want to ‘play’ at the opposite gender in sexual relationships. I think there has been an increase in both.
Though I don’t think we have good statistics, and they would be hard to obtain, I suspect that there has been a significant increase in the number of men who feel themselves to be bisexual. There is a common pattern of men who are quite dominant with women, but who also have an intense desire to cross the tracks, and dress as women in sexual play with a more dominant guy.
It is hard to know what is going on here. I have long been suspicious of the prevailing ideology in the transgendering in community that people know, simply ‘know’, that their true gender is the opposite one from what they have been given, and who want to adapt their bodies and social roles to conform to what they know to be their true gender.
If that was rephrased in terms of what people ‘feel’ to be their gender, I would have no problem. My difficulty is with the idea that someone has private but absolutely dependable insight into what that gender really is. I think all of us know ourselves in the context of a social relations, not in that kind of private way.
However, there is no denying the intensity with which these issues are often felt, no denying the excitement that some men feel when they first start wearing female clothes. The feelings can be so intense that those who experience them can get scared by the strength of their own feelings. There often seems to be an increased desire to find some expressions of bisexual feelings in middle life, and it becomes part of a mid-life crisis.
I have to admit that I find all this a bit baffling. Bisexuality is not at all well understood. There is often a simplistic idea around the bisexuals are people who can have perfectly good sexual relations with either sex. On the contrary the problem is that bisexuals seem to have quite strong, but entirely different, desires for relations with men and with women. Whichever way they go they are left with something that feels incomplete.
As I say, I am somewhat baffled by this, so what I say will be very tentative. However, I think there are at least two processes at work.
One is about escape from the given male gender. There is currently much ‘escaping the self’ going on, to borrow the title of an excellent book by Roy Baumeister, in which he covers suicide, masochism, alcoholism, binge eating, spirituality etc. There often seems to be a sense of palpable relief at being able to shed, at least for a while, the oppressive expectations associated with the male gender.
However, I think there is also a search for completeness, a kind of androgyny. It seems that all of us, in varying ways, have both male and female elements in our personality, often dominant and submissive elements too. Living both of these out at different times, with different people, enables a person to be in touch with the diverse elements of their personality, and gives them a chance to bring things together.