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The Invisible Man – people like Milo Yiannopoulos need to ask me about transgenderism, not tell me

November 7, 2015

On Friday the 15th of August 2014, columnist and broadcaster Milo Yiannopoulos looked me in the eye and said: “You don’t exist. You, Adrian Williams, do not exist; have never existed. Your past never occurred, your happiness is a delusion. Everything you have ever known about yourself is wrong.”

Of course, that didn’t happen literally. He didn’t literally say verbatim, nor directly to me.

He implied it in his blog Transgenderism is a psychiatric disorder: Its sufferers need therapy, not surgery. In it he describes, in mainly hypothetical terms plus a smattering of examples (apparently counting for a majority sample), how transgenderism sufferers are never cured by surgery, they are only made worse by it. Actually, he never even mentioned transmen – like most non-trans commentators on transgenderism (and certainly people who are anti gender reassignment surgery), he does not acknowledge our existence at all. Yet, he did say “transgenderism”. He did not specify only transwomen, thus he automatically includes me whether he knows it or not.

I was not so much angry when I read it, as unnerved. In saying that all trans people are mentally ill and become suicidal, this perfect stranger had effectively told me that without a shadow of a doubt, I will kill myself. The sensation was similar to that of being told by a devout and conservative Christian that you will go to hell. You don’t believe it, but still the intensity with which they believe it – and by extension, believe that you deserve it – is so cold, it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

I envisioned falling back into the depression that plagued me between the ages of 13 and 22, which I finally escaped from three years ago. It’s not something that I like thinking about. Just imagining what I felt like then is enough to put me in a subdued mood for several hours. I had to remind myself that I’m unequivocally the happiest I’ve ever been. Everyone who ever knew me before and after can see the drastic change in me; a fully formed person blossomed from the transition.

That person is still here now. He was not a passing fancy, walking on air for a few hours after surgery and slumping back into depression within weeks afterwards. I feared it might be the case, but again did not really believe it; lo and behold, three years pass, and I am not decreasingly but increasingly happy. That happiness is so stretched across all aspects of my life, that it is difficult for me to even make the connection between that small surgery and this general happiness. The only thing that makes me certain is to think back. How did I feel before the surgery? Like there was something infuriatingly in the way of life. Before the hormones? Like nothing. Like no one.

Yiannopoulos underestimates the extent to which transgenderism, when correctly treated, is a gradual process of self-discovery. One does not simply walk into a surgeon’s room, slap one’s genitals down on the table and request a rewiring. If Yiannopoulos’s assertion is correct, I should have felt constantly uncertain about my choice. I did not. In fact, the waiting time for my surgery was so long that by the time the date came around, I entered it with the calmness of a person undertaking the most basic and perfunctory procedure. It was is if I was having an ingrown toenail sorted. I was not, as I think Yiannopoulos imagines, a tearful speaking-in-tongues convert to the cult of transgenderism.

I imagined what it would be like to suddenly wake up and find that Adrian had been stripped from me, and the person I was before forced back in his place. It’s so painful to conceive of living like that, it’s hard to imagine that I ever did – and for 20 odd years. For a while after my surgery, I had frequent nightmares that it had been reversed. These were cold sweat dreams, the worst of my life. I know that to people who are convinced I am mentally ill, this will all be counted as proof of the fact. I don’t know how to impress upon these people that mental illness is about feeling and functionality. I function perfectly. I feel fantastic. I was cured, but it was not a miracle cure that fades because it is all religious fervour and no substance. It was slow treatment, and it happened in a life setting, not a laboratory. I can think of no better proof that it works.

Those nightmares quickly faded. They faded because I was living. I was back at university, after having failed two courses and dropped out at the age of 19. Now in my third year, I’m on track to finally receive my degree, if decidedly late. I teach myself Japanese, I write this blog. The ambitions of my childhood, in my innocence before the nightmare of puberty, are back and I have a new and unfamiliar confidence in my ability to fulfil them. I have a girlfriend, the longest and most fulfilling relationship I’ve ever had by a country mile. I have confidence that all being well on her side, it will continue – something I have never felt previously. Before, some part of me I could not explain purposefully blocked relationships from flourishing.

I’ve asked myself: Was this all irrelevant to my transition? Would this have happened just from the process of maturing? It is faintly possible. But if what Yiannopoulos indicates is true – that gender and biological sex are so fundamental, they should never be messed with – it’s hard to imagine that my transition could have made no difference at all. The only thing that is certain is that, in this tolerant society, transition has not made my life worse. I owe it entirely to growing education and acceptance. I was able to tell my sexual partners I was trans. I could not have done, and thus would perhaps have become depressed again due to chronic loneliness, if I could never meet anyone who would accept it.

We must always account for the possibility of self-fulfilling prophecy; if an authority says transgenderism is an illness, it is treated as one. It is not accepted as viable identity, thus is not accepted at all. Illness and disability carry a fundamental lack of acceptance; in the pursuit of a “cure”, nothing else will do. Happy transgenderism is not permitted to exist, because it causes dissonance in the minds of people who can’t fathom its existence as a stable state that is not only manageable but perhaps even preferred. Trans people, biploars, people with Aspergers syndrome or ADHD; members of all can attest to the fact that the desperation of friends and family members for a cure overshadows their ability to see that stability, respect, comfort, dignity, understanding and patience are all more important.

I have received that stability, respect, comfort, dignity, understanding and patience. As as result, I sometimes forget that I am trans. I do not obsess over it, as if my entire life has led up to, and thus ends with, surgery. I’m not walking on clouds, obsessed with no own newly flat chest, in danger of falling down a hole when I realise life is more than that. I already knew that when I was wheeled into the operation theatre. The whole point was to get in out of the way, to get on with my life.

Instead, I’m walking down the road, thinking of women, looking at other men, and I think to myself: “Oh yes, that’s right. How strange, I didn’t always look like this. People didn’t always think of me this way.” To a non-trans person, it must seem absurd to the point of inconceivability that I would ever cease to be aware of my own transgenderism, but the truth is that normal life doesn’t lend itself to constant meditation on your past. How I feel about my past is, I think, reasonably close to how non-trans people feel: I have grown up. My body has changed, my life has altered. I’m glad that I think it has altered for the better, because I know so many people who feel their life gets worse every year.

Yiannopoulos compared my wish for surgery to neurological conditions whereby people seek the amputations of their limbs; the major difference being, of course, that removing breast tissue does not impair basic function. As for genital surgery, he suggests that the trans inability to properly insert or receive during sex determines that they will be sexually dissatisfied for their entire lives – an assertion I’m sure many lesbians would take issue with. The idea that you need proper penetrative sex and ejaculation to experience fulfilment is an idea well out of date. It comes from an era when old professors thought male homosexuality was similarly dissatisfying because of a lack of coitus. As a gay man, it’s peculiar indeed that Yiannopoulos should align himself with such ancient views.

Instead, I compare my surgery to the correction of a club foot; I couldn’t walk, it was causing me pain. Now I’m running, faster every year. It’s clear to me that these are my best years, these are the years where I’m building a proper life and identity, building the person I want to be forever. I wasn’t doing that when I was 16, or 18, or 21, or any of those key stages. I was hiding under my covers, not wanting to be seen and not wanting to see myself.

Now, all of a sudden, my life is better than the lives of many of my peers. I have countless friends with various mental health issues and they are worse off than me. I feel lucky, because the thing that was wrong with me was so beautifully simple: to be blunt, I had a pair of tits, I didn’t want a pair of tits. A surgeon removed them for me. Sorted. Compare that to the long history of mental illness my friends have had, where no therapy or cocktail of drugs has helped them, despite repeated attempts for many years.

Yiannopoulos says that transgenderism should be treated with medicine like other mental health issues. But even if it could, I don’t want it. I’ve seen how medication can make some people’s lives drag on, steadied but still unhappy. If there were surgeries that worked for these people as well as mine did for me, they would certainly take them. He compares me to a cancer sufferer – I assume he does know that many cancer sufferers pray that there will be a surgical answer to their problem, as chemotherapy is so sickening and traumatic.

But that is all besides the point, because there simply are no medications that work on transgenderism. If there were, you can bet the medical professionals would try them before recommending surgery. The surgery-hormones route is not the cheapest treatment option. It’s simply the only one that works. Mental illness is necessarily temporary, yet most trans people say they had visions of themselves as the opposite sex for as long as they can remember. As far as I’m aware, it is not considered that any six-year-olds have mental health problems.

We think of surgery as being such a drastic intervention, but I wonder. Would therapy in which I would be constantly pressured into agreeing that I’m a woman be a humane “treatment” for me? Thankfully, I’m so ingrained in my new male existence, I tend to snort at the suggestion that I’m “not a man”, whatever that may mean. But all trans people all go through a period of fragility, and such an approach could make them immeasurably worse. It could crumble them beyond repair.

Even if it’s all in our heads, there’s no way to make that clear to sufferers. Thus, all the therapy route does is is effectively say that our identity doesn’t exist. That never made anyone feel better and I doubt it’s considered ethical practise. People who believe they are beings or people whom they are not often find themselves in mental institutions; talk to trans people. See if you think they come across as people who belong in institutions.

Yiannopoulos makes no account for neurology, either. Schizophrenia is a neurological condition. You can’t therapy people out of it. Transgenderism is necessarily in the brain, no one sensible denies it – everything that makes identity is in the brain. That makes it a neurological problem by default. The problem is that the only possible cure for neurological conditions is brain surgery. If surgery is extreme, neurosurgery must be the most extreme of the extreme. Try as I may I can’t see how neurosurgery, with all the risks of interfering with the brain, is a better intervention than surgery on other parts of the body. If severe schizophrenia could be cured by removing a finger, perhaps sufferers would willingly choose it.

The whole attitude lacks that basic empathy; Yiannopoulos makes the point that transgenderism can’t be compared to homosexuality. But that negation of experience the the classic language of prejudice. He knows what it’s like to be gay, I know what it’s like to be trans; it would be unacceptable for me, as a trans person, to say that his experience as a gay man – in whatever ways it may differ from other gay men’s experiences – counts for nothing. It is just as unacceptable for him to say that (however indirectly) to me about trans issues.

But, if I were convinced that his experience is worthless, there would be nothing he could say to convince me otherwise. Conventionally, I could wave it all away as delusion and illness. People have been doing it for years, from the “hysteria” of women to the “barbarous” nature of non-whites. This is what’s happening to trans people in the hands of trans-exclusionary members of the LGBT community, or radical feminists.

At the bottom of it all is a patent disregard for any identity we think might be constructed or chosen. I’d say that anything that is “given” at birth has an element of that; we make it an identity, by choice. Ultimately, I decide what I am inside even if I don’t have the power to change how I’m perceived. Though, as it happens, I’m at a point in my transition where it would be ludicrously counterintuitive for anyone to call me a woman. I’ve got the hairy chest, the beard and the bald patch. These days, Milo Yiannopoulos is more likely to be attracted to me than Julie Bindel (also ga, and no champion of gender reassignment surgery herself), whether he’d be happy about it or not. Yet, rational people are supposed to believe this counts for nothing.

There are transgendered people who have surgery too soon and too eagerly, who aren’t screened properly for trauma or other problems, who live to regret it. These people are tragedies, just as the misdiagnosed everywhere are tragedies. But on Friday the 15th of August 2014, a man behind a computer with no personal experience of transgenderism said that my experience doesn’t count. I have no reason to doubt he spoke with good will towards my lot, but he spoke misguidedly. He made us invisible. He would, supposedly for my own good, deny me a choice I made that turned out to be right for me. It’s safe to say that I don’t want the good of Milo Yiannopoulos. I doubt I’m alone.

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