What Do We Mean by Authenticity?

| Dec 2, 2019
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I have been asked by a dear trans friend to try to explain what transgender people mean when they talk about being authentic. Authenticity is a term started by psychiatrists, psychologists and philosophers. There is lots of psychodynamic psychobabble about egos and selves both true and false types. And now it is also being used in corporate culture to define the perfect employee and has even crept into advertising. But this does not mean that transgender people should subscribe to any of these meanings. After all, we have repurposed and redefined many words. We have even redefined the word “transgender” itself. It started out as a definition to emphasize that transitioning transgender people do so because of their gender, not because of their sex. The mental health professionals seem to continuously invent new terms in order to express their thoughts and speculations but transgender people will immediately set to work redefining them. Transgender people have repurposed and redefined the word transgender and many others to express concepts involved in their lives. As Lewis Carroll wrote in Through the Looking Glass to indicate the constantly changing definition of words “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

So, what does authenticity mean to transgender people? I think we have to go back to times in life before transgender people achieve authenticity to see what changes.

Before declaring authenticity, many transgender people suffer from secrecy and anxiety about their gender. Secrecy is toxic. It puts a mental workload burden on transgender people to constantly monitor what they say and do to keep their transgender behavior a secret and to ruminate about gender. A person must create and maintain false stories both about their previous or immediate history, such as what they did last year or the night before. In the intelligence world, these are called cover stories.

My cover story was that I played football, was in the military, had a family and two children and engaged in productive military research and development. Almost no one would believe that I secretly dressed in women’s clothing at least once a month, sometimes in public.

But cover stories require one to lie and keep the lies straight, which creates burdensome mental workload. As Mark Twain wrote “if you tell the truth, you do not have to remember anything.” If you think of your brain as a computer, cover stories require repeated memory access which ties up other information processing functions. This high mental workload interferes with being present at work and in interpersonal relations. For most people, this high mental workload is stressful and sets off a chain of physiological events that are ultimately injurious to ones’ health, including depression and even suppression of the immune system. This type of depression is called reactive depression and should be distinguished from long-term organic depression. It is in response (reaction) to circumstances, not to inherent biological problems. The other thing that happens in social relations is self-isolation which transgender people pursue to reduce the frequency of occurrence of stressful encounters in which they are forced to lie to maintain their stories. Maintaining friendships becomes difficult, for fear that someone might get too close and find out the secret. And depression sometimes leads to self-harm to which transgender people are particularly prone as witnessed by the statistic that at least 40% attempt to end their own lives. Even if they partially reveal their secret, say in a support group or other gathering, transgender people are relieved of the burdens and toxic emotions at least for a time.

If people perform their transgender behavior publicly, transgender people are subject to anxiety about being read and social rejection. Particularly if they are teenagers, they also may be anxious about how to label themselves. Currently, they are faced with a myriad of labels such as transmasculine, transfeminine, genderqueer, genderfluid, and crossdresser.

For transgender people, being authentic means that they do not have to keep their secrets about transgender behavior. This frees them from the associated mental workload problems, and allows them to be present to deal with non-trans issues. Being authentic allows transpeople to feel good about themselves because they feel free to experience their own emotions and to act. They are freed from paralyzing cover stories, mental workload and imposed circumstances that interfere with obtaining their goals. They feel free to express their own personalities; their personalities are largely innate and are there from birth.

Authenticity supports being present in social situations, meaning that one is able to react to others and to react to situations in a real time manner and not dwelling on the past or future. Although there is little study of transgender secrecy in particular, the general psychology of secrecy indicates that the physiological effects of stress should lessen which should improve their physiological health and well-being.

There are dangers associated with suddenly becoming authentic. Many transpeople that I have met report that they become much more outgoing and extroverted, even to the point of over-doing it at first. They may go through a period which some have called the “pink fog.” The decisions they make during this period may result in excesses. For example, excesses of presentation, behavior, relationships, and spending money. Knowledgeable counselors should be aware of this phenomenon and it should be anticipated in planning for such events as “coming out,” initiating transition, going to a trans convention or starting in a support group where a trans person increases their authenticity.

Once out of the pink fog, being authentic allows transgender people to more effectively deal with the primary existential issues of life. They are no longer bound up in protecting their secrets or figuring out how to label themselves. They are better able to try out new things, ideas or behaviors to see what is compatible with their personalities and predispositions. They can identify what is meaningful to them including finding friends and people to love.

Life and society are hard enough to figure out and deal with without having to carry around extra burdens of useless secrecy or anxiety. However, even an authentic transperson is still vulnerable to mental injury and stress from cultural rejection that threaten to pull a person back into stress and depression. You will have to know who you are and that you are not alone before you can stand up and push back on culture. And there may be wounds from loneliness that take time to heal. But after becoming authentic, even if for brief periods of time, a transperson can develop personal relationships that will provide support.

My dear friend and I can compare notes and provide comfort about misgendering and acts of cultural rejection in our brief visits, even if she has to go back in the closet during the holidays.

So be as authentic as you can, as often as you can, whether for a few hours once a month, once a week or every day. You will feel better.

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Category: Transgender Body & Soul


About the Author ()

Dana Jennett Bevan holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and a Bachelors degree from Dartmouth College both in experimental psychology. She is the author of The Transsexual Scientist which combines biology with autobiography as she came to learn about transgenderism throughout her life. Her second book The Psychobiology of Transsexualism and Transgenderism is a comprehensive analysis of TSTG research and was published in 2014 by Praeger under the pen name Thomas E. Bevan. Her third book Being Transgender was released by Praeger in November 2016. She can be reached at danabevan@earthlink.net.

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