Content Warning: integration, invalidation, pathologization

If you are not familiar with plurality, you might want to read our intro to plurality first.

Instead of providing an introductory article to being transgender (there are lots of those already), I decided instead to write about how our transgender and plural experiences intersect and interact. While coming to understand ourselves as transgender came about 9 months before understanding ourselves as plural, it is not possible for me to talk about our trans and plural experiences as isolated. This is largely because we have a gender-diverse system, with identities/selves having different gender experiences and different types and degrees of gender dysphoria. In our system, many of us are agender and genderqueer, while some of us are binary female. None of us identity as strictly male, though some of us are comfortable with male (along with gender-neutral) pronouns. This creates a bit of an awkward situation as some selves experience dysphoria as a result of our gender transition, rather than dysphoria with our pre-transition body. However, we are all largely dissociated from our body (which we don’t see as a problem), and consider our body to be more of a spaceship we inhabit rather than “who we are”.

Before coming to understand us as plural-spectrum, I had a very sudden feeling that I was transgender and that my body should be female. The way this came about was similar to what I’ve heard a lot of trans people describe; there is a sudden moment that you remember where you suddenly feel or understand yourself as another gender, and this creates a powerful realization you can no longer ignore. Now that I recognize plural-self experiences, I recognize this shift as something very similar to a headmate switch (where a different self “fronts”, taking control). My life had undergone a lot of difficult changes, and more than ever I found my future to be a relatively blank slate. While difficult, it was also incredibly freeing, and I think provided an opportunity for our other selves to start presenting themselves. In our experience, selves often front based on circumstances/needs in our life. If we need to work, Brook or I (Ellie) will front to get work done. If something is of interest to a different self, they will often lurk or front (like a stuffed animal bringing a little one out). With the sudden changes in our life, we no longer had what was our primary fronting self (now named Brook, agender) held firmly in place by our life circumstances.

Given these intersections between trans and plural experiences, I have given considerable thought to the way they are similar, including their subjective experience, the way these experiences interact and relate with each other, and social attitudes towards trans and plural folks. As always, this comes from our own experiences and I want to emphasize that others may experience things in different ways. I am also leaning heavily towards depathologizing plural experiences, though my relationship to our plural experiences is not always free of pathologization. We deliberately present this bias to counter the largely pathologizing narratives around plurality that exist otherwise.

So here goes, on trans and plural experience:

 

People don’t believe you.

Negative attitudes towards trans and plural folks are numerous and diverse. But often what we encounter is outright denial of our experiences. We are sometimes considered attention seeking, and our experiences can be significantly invalidated especially when they don’t clearly fit accepted narratives. For example, non-binary trans folks or those not interested in expression typical for their gender identity often encounter strict gatekeeping that questions their mental health and motivations for seeking gender transition. When a certain style of gendered expression is expected (work, formal events), genderqueer identities and expressions are often considered “not a real thing”, and people are often pressured to “pick a side of the binary”.

Plural systems and identities encounter similar attitudes from mental health professionals and the general public. The only concept of plurality that exists within mainstream psychiatry and psychology forces a very pathologizing framework. People are expected to experience their plurality as negative and an illness, and those that do not are treated with suspicion. The “Guidelines for Treating Dissociative Identity Disorder” linked to by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation enforces a pathologizing narrative by describing “imitative DID”

… particularly in patients with personality disorders. Here, the patient, concerned others, and even the therapist strongly believe in the patient’s identity as having DID… patients with this kind of pseudo-DID tend to be characterized by an enthusiastic embrace and display of their “identities” that is contrary to typical DID patients’ pervasive pattern of disavowal.

As with many trans people, those that do not have the “right” way of experiencing their plural identities are treated as suspect. While our own experiences with plurality have not always been positive, we have also found switching to be very positive and healthy for us. People should trust, at the very least, what others report as their subjective experience. Plurality should be defined by the subjective experience of having multiple selves, rather than requiring a specific narrative and formal diagnosis under a pathologizing framework.

 

You don’t believe yourself.

Having your experiences invalidated and pathologized, and being told that your experiences aren’t real (or are less legitimate) if they don’t follow a prescribed narrative, comes with significant personal consequences. All of this gets internalized and can lead us to seeking external validation rather than trusting in our own experiences. This was very much the case for us with respect to being both trans and plural. As we came to understand ourselves as trans, we went through an intense period of obsessively comparing our own experiences of being trans against those of other trans folks, and against mainstream understandings of trans experience. When things deviated from these narratives, we became very worried that our experiences were not legitimate, and that we were making things up to get attention or distract ourselves from other difficult aspects of our life.

As we came to understand ourselves as plural, we had a very similar experience with obsessively comparing our narrative against that of others. We were worried that we weren’t really plural because we do not remember any overt trauma, because we don’t experience headspace as clearly as some others, because we have pretty good memory access between selves, and all sorts of other ways that didn’t match up completely with what we thought plural folks experienced. This left us feeling really lost; knowing that we were experiencing aspects of plural selves that we couldn’t deny, but not feeling that we were “really plural”. I’ve heard attitudes towards non-binary gender folks as being as if you can pick the “male box”, “female box”, or “crazy box”. I felt like all I had left with my experiences of plurality were the “crazy box”, not being really plural, but definitely being different from a singlet. However, the more I chatted with plural folks, the more I recognized an incredible diversity of experience and that our experiences were actually more typical than not. It has taken us a long time to trust our own experiences as legitimate in themselves, and not need a great deal of external validation to feel okay.

(Note that I also identify as crazy, but this is not essentially linked to our plural experiences!)

 

It’s a question of identity.

No matter what theories one might consider around transgender etiology, we should recognize that what makes someone transgender is experiencing their gender as something other than the gender typically associated with their sex. Despite attempts to reduce things to essential and objectively measurable characteristics, this subjective experience must remain the standard by which someone’s trans status is determined. That is to say, if some objectively measurable characteristics of transgenderness are suspected, a mismatch between those characteristics and someone’s subjective experience requires that we question the “objective characteristics”, rather than invalidating that individual’s experience. This must be the nature of identity generally, that it is our subjective understanding of ourselves.

If we accept that transgender identities are legitimate by decoupling gender identity from sex, we have opened the door to ending biological essentialism around identity more generally. As with transgender identities, plural identities involve selves with characteristics and self-images different from that of the body. If there are no apparent contradictions between plural self-images and the body, there is at least a challenge to the idea that a body should contain only one sense of self. Subjective experiences define both transgender and plural identities, despite attempts to reduce things to “objective characteristics”. In both cases, it defines our relationship to ourselves, our body, and the world around us. Your own experience is what makes you trans or plural, not a formal diagnosis or biological test.

 

It’s not a binary.

While binary identities should be respected, gender experiences (cis and trans) often do not fall completely cleanly and consistently into a binary. Similarly, everyone has some degree of plural experience as we adjust ourselves or change modes depending on the situation. For example, we may have a work mode that is different from us being with a romantic partner. In each case, we emphasize significantly different aspects of ourselves. Plural systems seem to have similar experiences, but to a much greater extent and in a much more discrete way (and potentially with each self reacting to the same situation in different ways).

(Some plural folks may conceptualize their plurality as different in kind from singlets, are I am open to hearing about and exploring that also. However, we tend to consider things to be more of a spectrum.)

 

They’re marginalized identities.

Cissexism and singletism are both very real. The gender identities of trans people are often considered to be less legitimate than those of cis people. Similarity, the identities within plural systems are often considered to be illegitimate and suspect (while often considering only one self within the system to be “real”). Marginalized identities are subject to discrimination by mental health professionals, at work, with friends in families, and in myriad other ways.

(Julia Serano discusses this at length in her book Excluded. While not mentioning plurality specifically, her discussion of attitudes towards transgender and other marginalized identities in general relate very closely to plural identity marginalization.)

With marginalization comes issues of closets and passing, concepts strongly applicable to both trans and plural folks. A first step often involves coming out to ourselves, recognizing our experiences as undeniable and perhaps something we need to act on. If we’re transgender and want to transition in some way, staying in the closet is not usually an option as those who know us are likely to notice. If at some point a trans person becomes cis-passing (being read as cis), they may feel they are entering another closet no longer being seen as trans (and having to come out again and again).

Plural folks have closets too, and we are often left with the difficult choice of whether to be out and open about our identities and experiences, or feel isolated hiding important aspects of our selves and lives. And if we do not have complete control over switching (when another self takes control), someone noticing a switch could raise uncomfortable questions. Like trans folks, plural folks sometimes have a choice to be singlet-passing, and sometimes don’t. If plurality were accepted as a legitimate and potentially healthy, plural folks would have more space to explore their experiences openly without fear of discrimination.

 

It gets pathologized.

The DSM has a history of pathologizing human diversity, including transgender and plural identities. The DSM-III (1980) introduced transsexualism, but largely ignored the experiences of trans people without obvious gender issues in childhood. The DSM-IV (1994) changed this name to Gender Identity Disorder, and began recognizing a larger diversity of experiences (albeit still under an inherently pathologizing framework). It was not until the DSM-V that being trans was largely depathologized by renaming the DSM category to Gender Dysphoria, which describes a subjective experience closely related to be trans, rather than attempting to define what makes some “truly trans”. They recognize this move towards depathologization, stating

DSM-5 aims to avoid stigma and ensure clinical care for individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. It replaces the diagnostic name “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria,” as well as makes other important clarifications in the criteria. It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition. [emphasis added]

Plurality was also introduced in the DSM-III and evolves at each version until the DSM-V. However, it does not follow a similar pattern of recognizing more diverse experiences and reducing necessary depathologization. Rather, it was introduced in the DSM-III as multiple personality disorder, before evolving to become dissociative identity disorder (DID) in the DSM-IV with stricter diagnostic criteria. (Diagnoses of “dissociative disorder not otherwise specified” (DSM-IV) and “otherwise specified dissociative disorder” (DSM-V) also relate to plurality, as “subclinical” DID experiences.) Plurality remains conceptualized exclusively under a pathologizing framework, and there is little acknowledgement of plurality among most mental health professionals as a potentially natural and healthy phenomenon.

I would like to see recognition of plurality as potentially healthy and legitimate, though also understand the need for therapy/guidance to help some systems become more ordered and functional. A label such as “plural system dysfunction” might achieve such a thing (though we’re a long way from validating that type of identity “nonconformity”).

 

You’re allowed to conceptualize and navigate it in different ways.

As long as it doesn’t invalidate other people’s experience (and I recognize this can be complex), you are free to conceptualize and navigate your experiences in the way that works best for you. Some people find pathologization helpful and necessary to navigate their plural or transgender experiences. For transgender individuals, they may see their gender as a birth defect caused by biological factors and therefore requiring medical transition/correction. For plural folks, they may understand their system as trauma-created and wish to follow more “official” ways of “treating” their condition. This typically focuses on system cooperation first, even if “integration” (becoming a singlet) is the goal.

We live in a world where transgender and plural identities are significantly marginalized, and I believe people should have a right to navigate their experiences in a way that works for them as long as they are careful to let others do the same. This may involve contradictory frameworks. Embrace the messiness and allow contradiction instead of forcing everyone into the same “objective truth”.

 

They’re probably directly related.

There are ways in which transgender and plural experiences seem to be directly related for some people. Trans folks I have chatted with often talk about having built up a “false self” around their gender assigned at birth, and needing to embrace and allow their “true self” to take over. (If you want to read more about this, check out Lin Fraser’s article, Depth Psychotherapy with Transgender People.). This framework tends to focus on the idea that we have one true self that we need to embrace and actualize. Healthy plurality frameworks, on the other hand, tend to embrace the idea that we can have multiple “true selves”, with no self more valid than another. Both true/false self and healthy plurality frameworks involve the formation of multiple selves, sometimes with a self or selves suppressed for a long time.

 

As well as finding a great deal of similarity between our trans and plural experiences, it is very hard for us to conceptualize these experiences as isolated from each other. By ending necessary pathologization and reducing stigma around plurality and diverse gender experiences, we are giving everyone more space and options to navigate their own experiences and relationship with themselves and the outer world. Transgender rights and validation have come a long way in the last decade. But with very little recognition of plurality outside of a pathologizing framework, plural and progressive communities have a long way to go.

2 Comments

  1. Pleasure to read, as always, thanks for sharing!

  2. Pingback: A new strategy | The Dissociative Initiative

  3. I really enjoy reading this post. But there is one thing that stood out for me

    ” I believe people should have a right to navigate their experiences in a way that works for them as long as they are careful to let others do the same.”

    That is very true. It is our experiences and we should be able to navigate them in a way we feel that is best for us regardless if it fits into some other way of navigating. Realize that our way of navigating only works for us and not try to impose it on someone else.

    It is good to share the ways we navigate with other people. I often learn and incorporate what other people share with me into my way because I feel it would be better for me. But just keep it at sharing and not judge other people’s ways as good or bad.

    If anything the system of mental health should be changed. Not be setup like it is right now where people are forced into some definition of what is normal or abnormal. But instead embrace what the individual sees of themselves and if anything help the person find their own way that works for them. To say whatever this person see themselves then that is normal for them and them alone.

    Thank you for sharing yourselves with me. In doing so I have learned about how your system works and understand yourselves better :)

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