[content warning: mentions of transphobic violence, slurs]
My understanding of transness bears certain similarities to those of the Blanchardians I know. I suspect that trans people fall broadly into two types, although as always sharp binaries erase the experiences of many people. However, I think that their proposed etiologies are absurdly incorrect. I believe that HSTS-subtype trans people experience gender dysphoria and are not simply transitioning as part of a rational decision, and I believe that autogenderphile-subtype trans people do not primarily transition because of a sexual fetish.
My true rejection of Blanchardian etiologies is that they don’t describe my experiences at all. Of course, I don’t expect this to convince people who aren’t me.
Regarding the HSTS subtype: I agree that it is likely that HSTS-subtype trans people are on a continuum with gender-non-conforming gay people. I too am struck by the similarity between stone butches and trans men, and by the similarity between drag queens (particularly historically) and trans women. The sharp divisions between these groups seem to me to be as much a political construct as an accurate description of empirical reality (read David Valentine’s excellent Imagining Transgender for more). There is an incentive for both trans people and gay people to support this separation. It is far easier to advocate for trans people’s rights if transness is disconnected from icky sex stuff. And gay people (particularly gay men) have a lot to gain from distancing themselves from the victims of transmisogyny.
Of course, people currently understand themselves as either a trans woman or a gender-non-conforming gay man, either a butch lesbian or a trans man. The categories we have available influence our behavior and self-understandings, and lead to a very real difference between butch lesbians and trans men in present-day queer culture. However, this is not true historically. Either we or the people forty years ago have to be wrong, and it seems quite likely to me that the answer is “us”.
That said, it seems to me that the HSTS theory– which generally implies that transition is a rational decision made because it is easier to get through life as a passing straight trans woman than as a flamboyant gay man– neglects the reality of gender dysphoria. It’s true that it’s hard to draw a firm line where a strong desire to be gender-non-conforming transforms into gender dysphoria. And it’s true that many people, particularly historically, chose to manage their dysphoria through being a drag queen, stone butch, etc., and that whether one becomes a stone butch or a trans man probably depends in part on which one gives you the best other life outcomes. But nevertheless there are many teenagers thrown out of homes whose parents would be fine with a faggot but not a tranny. And while “no fats no fems” is a trend in gay culture, gay men are mostly not going to straight-up assault or murder you for having sex with them as a feminine gay guy, while many straight men will. Conversely, there exist feminine gay men in Iran who have not transitioned, even though it is clearly better to be a straight trans woman in Iran than a feminine gay man. It seems to me that the only way to explain this is that “desire to live as a particular gender and/or sex for its own sake” is an actual thing which puts its thumb on the scales.
Regarding the autogynephile/autoandrophile subtype: I feel like autogynephilia theories, to succeed, must sail very carefully between Scylla and Charybdis, and so far all such theories I’ve seen have wound up being devoured by the monster or drowning in the whirlpool.
Scylla: In general, people do not disrupt their entire lives out of a solely and purely sexual motivation. People who kink on rape might roleplay rape, but they don’t try to get raped themselves. People with a public-use fetish might get tied up for public use at a play party, but they don’t generally do it on a street corner. I’ve met quite a few people with an impregnation fetish, and to my knowledge they have collectively had one unplanned pregnancy, which was a result of attempting to safely indulge the impregnation fetish and screwing it up.
Of course there are exceptions: some people with a rape fetish commit rape; some people with an impregnation fetish deliberately get impregnated; some people with a bimbo fetish get boob jobs. Perhaps many people are secretly autogenderphiles, but most people don’t transition. Let’s Fermi estimate this: 0.3% of people are trans; perhaps 0.15% are autogenderphiles. I’m going to guess that maybe 1% of people are willing to do something as life-changing as transition to satisfy a fetish. (If you are objecting that this is too low, consider that– unlike, say, rape and impregnation– autogenderphilia cannot be indulged on impulse when one is sexually aroused and not thinking straight and– unlike, say, getting a boob job– it involves a major disruption to one’s personal relationships, including perhaps a divorce and parental rejection. I consider this estimate conservative.)
This estimate would imply that 15% of people have an autogenderphilia fetish, making it one of the most common fetishes among men. A study of the relative frequency of sexual fetishes suggests that this is not the case: “behavior of others”, the largest category into which autogenderphilia could conceivably be put, is less common than “body parts or features” and “objects associated with the body.” In particular, it appears that autogenderphilia is distinctly less common than foot fetishism, and far less than 15% of the population is interested in foot fetishism.
There are certain exceptions to my “people do not generally disrupt their lives out of sexual motivation.” For instance, people may cheat on their spouses, engage in 24/7 BDSM, or become polyamorous. However, these desires are generally not purely and solely sexual in motivation. A person who cheats on their spouse may find their relationship unfulfilling or be looking for a sense of validation. 24/7 subs generally find submission emotionally satisfying or have a romantic desire for a dominant/submissive relationship. Polyamorous people often value the freedom associated with being poly or not having to limit their partners’ sexual choices. While sexual motivation is no doubt one part of these decisions– a person may be more likely to become poly if they’re sexually aroused by their partner having sex with other people, or more likely to cheat if they’re turned on by the person they plan on cheating with– the emotional and interpersonal components play a more primary role.
From a gender-dysphoria perspective, transition makes sense: even if sexual arousal at the idea of being a particular gender is one aspect of why a person transitions, their gender dysphoria is still the primary motivation. From a perspective which does not accept the validity of gender dysphoria, you have to explain why this is the only sexual fetish that motivates people to this extent.
Charybdis: Researchers like Anne Lawrence argue that autogynephilia should be interpreted as a kind of romantic love which has affectional and attachment-based elements. When sexual arousal at the idea of being a woman fades, trans women may still feel an affectional bond to the reality of being women. Trans women may idealize the female body, as lovers idealize their beloved; trans women prioritize transition highly, as lovers prioritize their love; trans women may transition after some adverse life circumstance, as people use a new love affair to cope with some setback in life; people may find meaning and deep personal transformation in their gender, as they do with love.
I will set aside, for a moment, the argument that through an equal series of comparisons one could prove that the average musician experiences romantic attraction to the idea of being a rock star. (They idealize what being a musician is like, they prioritize playing music, they use music to cope with problems, they find a sense of meaning and personal transformation in music… those rock stars keep taking sexy pictures of themselves and they SAY it’s for the fans, but it’s probably a sign of their deep-seated autorockstarphilia.) A stronger question, for me, is: where are all the other people falling in love with themselves?
There exist trans women who are attracted to red-haired women, have a strong desire to be women, and have no particular interest in being redheads. By extension, there must presumably be men who are attracted to red-haired women, have no particular interest in being women, and have a strong desire to be redheads. Since red hair dye is readily available, these men would have no incentive not to admit that they are in love with themselves as redheads. Why aren’t they?
Maybe people are only capable of falling in love with themselves as a particular gender. This seems strange and arbitrary to me: our culture uses gender as the primary way of classifying people’s sexual attractions, but other cultures didn’t, and there’s no reason to assume that biology cares more about our classification system than the Romans’ active/passive system. But fine. Let’s grant that.
Where are the autoandrophiliac gay men? About 3.5% of the American population is lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Assuming again that 0.15% of people are autogenderphiliac, by my reckoning there should be 15,750 lesbian, gay, or bisexual Americans who are romantically in love with themselves (7,650 people who are just lesbian or gay). Fortunately, in this age of the Internet, weird people can find each other. Any group of nearly sixteen thousand people (or about seven thousand five hundred people, if you prefer to exclude bisexuals) ought to have a thriving Internet community, with its own Fetlife groups, tiresome discourse, and extremely niche porn. This community does not appear to actually exist; at best, a small number of autoromantics appear to comment on AVEN, but not in sufficient numbers to get their own forum. (To be clear, I’m not claiming there’s no such thing as autoromanticism; human sexuality is very diverse. I am claiming that it seems extraordinarily rare, far rarer than would be required to explain this theory.)
I have occasionally heard speculation that gay male bodybuilders are autoandrophiles. It seems to me that if that were the case it would be commonly known in gay male bodybuilder communities that many gay male bodybuilders are literally in love with themselves. Again, why would they hide it? It’s not like a gatekeeper is going to take away their squat rack if they don’t.
Finally, the autogynephilia hypothesis fails to explain one of the most striking facts about type-two transgender people, their distinctive personalities. The type-two personality could be characterized as “broader autism phenotype”, “nerdy”, or “really really weird”; someone in the Slate Star Codex comments called it “Heinlein protagonists”, which is honestly my favorite characterization. (Right down to the wacky political beliefs!) When I first read about Martine Rothblatt, a highly paid trans lesbian CEO who is trying to make a robot version of her wife so that her wife can live forever, I was like “yeah, that’s the kind of shit queer trans people do”. We’re strange people.
It is very unclear to me why autogynephilia would be the Weird Person Fetish. It’s not that only super-weird people transition: like I said above, autogynephilia is not that common of a fetish. Perhaps all fetishes are more common among super-weird people? Maybe there’s some connection between fetish and personality type? It’s an answerable question in theory, but Blanchardians appear strangely averse to trying to answer it.