is crossgender expression ethical?

Is crossgender expression–specifically, the expression by a man of typically “female” traits, such as wearing women’s clothes, or painting his nails, etc–ethical behavior?  As with any area of ethical inquiry, the question is hardly clear-cut, and as a feminist, an ally of sexual minority communities (which includes transgendered persons), and a man who strives to be moral, I really need to get this figured out insofar as I’m able: I need to reconcile competing value sets as well as I can.

It might not occur to some people that the ethics of feminine crossgender expression is even really a “question” at all.  In the modern, more tolerant and inclusive era in which people are free to explore and express alternate sexual orientations and gender identities, we might assume that any identity or form of gender expression is free for appropriation with little or no philosophical consequence.

But very few such things are without any philosophical consequence, especially in the sensitive arena of sex and gender politics.  I’ll admit, I myself was ignorant of how transgender expression might be controversial until I read some literature by feminists who fall on the more TERF end of the spectrum.  (‘TERF’ being an acronym for trans-exclusive radical feminist; these are feminists who, to describe it briefly, either deny the validity of the male-to-female transgender experience and/or claim that it is an ideology and set of behaviors that perpetuate sexism.)  I disagree with a fair number of TERF arguments and overall find them to be regressively radical and ironically hierarchical, but I do think there is sufficient merit in their concerns regarding female identity and gender to address the present topic.

So here’s what I aim to do:  I will lay out each point that I can conceive for thinking that male-to-female gender expression is NOT ethical, and then I will attempt a self-rebuttal.  Maybe in this manner I’ll come to some sort of insight that resolves the matter for me.  (I’ll assume for argument’s sake that there are no relationship issues involved: no deceiving a spouse or partner by hiding crossdressing, no causing a rift in a marriage with such behavior, etc.  That would render the whole discussion moot, because it would obviously be unethical.)

Why male-to-female gender appropriation is NOT ethical:

1.  It is predicated upon envy, a “sin” in the classic sense.  When a man sees female objects or bodies that don’t belong to him, that he can’t possibly hope to ever “possess” in the fullest possible sense he (perhaps sexually) desires, he grows envious.  Obviously, unethical.

2.  It is deliberate, conscious, willful, and selfish.  It is not an innocent pathology or mental illness in which the man has no idea what he is doing; he very clearly knows that he is appropriating female gender forms and is largely careless that what he is doing might have gender-political consequences.

3.  It draws from women’s exclusive set of gender forms.  The man who chooses to dress, speak, or behave “like a woman” is doing so exactly because those forms are more or less unique to women.  Accordingly, if these gender forms are unique to women, then he is appropriating things that are not “neutral” or “common” in a way that would make them free for his personal use.  He is invading feminine space and removing feminine content.

4.  It ignores the significance of the history and lived experience behind the gender forms that are being appropriated.  A man who “feels like a woman” and dresses in a skirt and paints his nails cannot ultimately know what it is like to have gone through female puberty, adolescence and menstruation, to be catcalled and sexually harassed, or to live an entire life of womanhood in a patriarchal society.  MtF gender appropriation in this sense is at best ignorant, disrespectful, and counterprogressive.

Self-rebuttals:  Why male-to-female gender appropriation is at the very least ethically neutral:

1.  While I’m not sure that it’s ethical or healthy to envy anything, neither am I sure that it’s particularly unusual or unethical.  “Oh my god, I wish I had his abs.”  “Damn, why can’t my hair look like hers?” and so on.  Now, there is likely a deeper pathology here than simply wishing you had someone’s beautiful ab muscles who happens to be of the same sex as you, but that’s beyond the scope of the present essay.  But suffice to say, I don’t think even that is unethical, as it stems from a psychological need, not simple covetousness or vanity.

2.  I think this is the most serious criticism and the most difficult one to deal with.  But even it operates under the assumption that there are always gender-political consequences of male-to-female gender expression.  This is not necessarily the case.  Not all women or feminists view the issue the same way.  Further, it assumes that all crossgender-expressing men are aloof and selfish.  This can hardly be the case.  Surely there must be a great number who are conscientious, well-intentioned, and who engage earnestly with TERF-minded women on these issues.

3.  This one is rather tricky.  If we say that one set of gender forms is exclusive to women, we run the risk of staking out an “essentialist” position, ie, that the two-X chromosome female sex has an inherent set of gender forms that correspond to it.  That’s a reductionist, sexist, and well…patently false ideology.  However, neither can we truthfully say in this context that gender forms such as makeup, nail polish, etc are totally non-exclusive to women, because the very reason the man seeks them out is because they are more or less exclusive to women; appropriating womanly forms is his entire goal.  So I’m in something of a catch-22 with respect to wanting to adhere to my simultaneous feminist and LGBTQ+ values.  But I think perhaps there is middle ground: such forms are exclusive enough to women to draw the interest of the crossdresser, but they are not so exclusive as to prescribe a woman’s essential identity.  Accordingly they are free for ethical appropriation.  Clothing, for example, cannot be used as an absolutely defining gender marker.  If a woman claims that a skirt is “hers” and hers alone by dint of her sex, then she is ironically making the same sort of argument that in olden times men would have made to prohibit her from wearing men’s garments.

4.  I don’t have much of a rebuttal for this one because I’m not sure that it amounts to an ethical argument against MtF crossgender expression in the first place.  I truly fail to see how just because a man might not understand the full lived experience of being a woman, that he cannot ethically and respectfully express feminine gender forms.  Would it not be a sexist statement for an old man welder to tell a novice woman welder, “You don’t know what it’s like to work in the shop as a man your whole life, surrounded by men…the camaraderie, the bonding, the testosterone, the difficulty of the work.  Just because you wear the mask and the gloves and hold the torch, doesn’t make you a welder.”?  Of course it’s patently sexist.  Women absolutely do have legitimate cause to be concerned that their lived experiences may be ignored, devalued, or misunderstood by men who crossdress or otherwise express “their” gender forms, but this has little to do with ethics on an individual basis.  Further, there is the question of empathy: Again, just because a man has not fully lived life as a woman, does not mean he is completely detached, unfamiliar, or otherwise aloof to a woman’s life experiences.  He could have grown up with a mother, aunts, sisters, friends, etc, observing their lives and deeply empathizing with them as they navigated life.  So to say that a man shouldn’t express female gender forms because doing so ignores the significance of the history and lived experience behind the gender forms that are being appropriated, is to deny that man’s capacity to exercise gender empathy.

image credit: AnonMoos, 2009 (WikiMedia Commons, Public Domain).



I am by almost all measures a gentle and patient person.  Loving, kind, and generous, able to get along well and with nearly anyone.  Utterly vanilla.  I’m a librarian, for fuck’s sake.

Most who know me, though, will also recognize that I can get very irritable from time to time, especially on the job.  No biggie there.  Everyone can.  Just part of being human.

What’s disturbing, however, is how much seething, latent RAGE I perpetually carry that no one perceives.  Most of the time even I am not aware of it.  Only in the past year or so have I come to recognize this about myself.  It’s not directed at anyone or anything in particular: fury doesn’t need a target or a purpose.

I’m not sure where exactly it comes from, but I have a theory that the cocktail is two parts severe chronic anxiety, one part boredom, and one part broken heart.

I want so much to be a good father and husband, and I’m TERRIFIED of failure.  I’ve sobbed so many times in sheer terror over whether or not I’ll fail my daughter in this regard.  That kind of anxiety will crush you.

At the same time, I’m bored shitless by my job.  Although there are some responsibilities and aspects of it that are challenging, I spend half the day working the circ desk: basically doing the job a trained monkey could do.  $65K in student loan debt to be a library desk clerk.  I’m paid ridiculously well, so I really can’t complain, but I feel so bored and useless.  The only nice part of my day is seeing my friend and getting to chat with her.

Which brings me to…

Heartbreak.  I have no real friends outside of work.  My only lifelong friend broke off contact with me when I moved to Texas.  It became clear that for years I had been nothing more than a convenience to him.  And now, given my responsibilities as a father, husband, homeowner, employee, citizen, commuter, bipolar patient etc, I just don’t have time to make new friends.  Plus, in some ways, I feel profoundly alone, even at home.  I do a massive amount of housework, without a lot of help from M.  It’s so stressful, and I feel resentful.  Oh, and nine years later, I still haven’t recovered from those two weeks of combined Sub and benzo withdrawal.  I was traumatized.  That torched my heart and mind into a gory mess of throbbing melted ash.  I didn’t ask for it.  I didn’t ask for any of that.

Sometimes I fantasize about suicide, I’m so angry.


slave names, 1783 – 1859

May these never be wiped from my family’s memory.  The crime is not our personal fault, but the legacy is our problem.

Dosso.  Jamar.  Nan.  Peter.  Amaretta.  Abram.  Demar.  Delia.  Ben.  Hagar.  Matina.  Primus.  Sabrina.  Bella.  Job.  Phobe.  Aurelia.  Hally.  Daniel.  Harry.  Adjutant.  Moses.  Pepe.  Nancy.  Sophy.  Richard.  Maria.  Peggy.  William Henry.  Daniel.  Austin.  George.  Joe.  Josh.  Fanny.  Jimmy.  Frances.  Wellington.  Kitty.  William.  Ozman.  Julia.  Fred.  Henry.

Derosset slave names 1783 to 1859

atheism from empirical first principles

Sometimes skeptics attack religious belief on the basis that it amounts to just believing random claims that someone else made, without any direct, personal, empirical confirmation.  But this criticism can be thrown right back at them: How, for example, can a believer in evolution know that all the facts supporting it are necessarily true?  After all, all the research data that has been published supporting evolutionary theory are essentially just claims that someone else made, and nothing but a certain kind of “faith” guides the lay science acolyte in accepting them.

Evolution as a specific example aside, I intend to show here that atheism per se can be deduced solely on empirical experience.  That is, immediate, personal, first principles.

There is a multiplicity of religions, many claiming exclusive truth, and all making claims that are far outside my experience of reality and reason and consequently, outside of my ability to accept.  Further, in none of these religions can I find any satisfactory explanations for existence, suffering, or death, so I can therefore find no comfort or purpose in their teachings.

I have no personal experience of any immortal soul or consciousness.  I had no consciousness before conception, no memory of early infancy when my mind was still too young to form a robust sense of self, and when I have undergone general anesthesia for surgery, my consciousness has completely winked out of existence for whatever external time duration that was.  I have no reason to believe that any sense of self can possibly survive the death of my physical brain.

I see a natural cosmos that, rather than being specially created as a home for human beings, is wholly indifferent to us.  Nature brings both warm, nurturing sunshine as well as deadly hurricanes and lethally cold winters.  Night and day come and go, as do the seasons, without regard for our preference or convenience.  I can look through my binoculars and behold a dead, apathetic moon, and a lifeless ball of gas that we call Jupiter.  Our galaxy itself is not unique.  I can look up in the night sky through my lenses and see others.

I see both beauty and ugliness in the world, both good and evil, both pleasure and suffering, all without the apparent intervention of any theistic god.  People fall in love and live long and happy lives together.  Some give selflessly to charity.  But children also die painfully of bone cancer, and humans enslave and traffic each other for profit.  I cannot help but view every circumstance and every event as explicable as the result of either human will or as the blind mechanism of nature.

I sense a deep and ancient kinship between us and the other inhabitants of the animal world, with that kinship being closer to some species than to others.  I see in vertebrate animals our same spark of sentience.

Without regard to any “authoritative” science–completely ignoring any genetic, fossil, molecular, or experimental evidence, and based simply on my own observations above–I find that human existence overall makes the most sense in light of evolutionary theory.  Religion serves a social function: to provide meaning and comfort and strength to those who seek it, and to cement group bonds.  Love propagates the species and protects the offspring; charity and altruism fortify social bonds, inflate self-worth, and possibly forge future alliances.  Morality ensures intergroup cooperation.  And the physical evolutionary relationship between ourselves and the rest of the vertebrate kingdom is self-evident.

the Army

I enlisted in the Army in September 1992 when I was still in high school, through the Delayed Entry Program, in which you could sign up but then wait to ship out until after you graduated.  Because I was only 17, my parents had to sign off on my joining.  Although my military aptitude test scores were high enough for me to get any job in the Army, I chose 11B Infantry because I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger.  Boyish dreams of tough-guy military glory, and all that.

I graduated high school in May 1993 and shipped out for boot camp on 28 July.  About a week before I left, I met and fell in love with M, the girl who would later become my wife.  We started a relationship despite my departure, and missed each other very much throughout my time away in the service.

My boot camp was at the Infantry Training Center at Sand Hill, Ft Benning, Georgia.  After about a week of in-processing, I went to train with my actual assigned boot camp Battallion in early August.  I was in 1st Platoon.

Like pretty much everyone else in boot camp, I hated the Army and regretted my decision to join.  I missed my friends, family, and girlfriend terribly, and wrote horribly whiny and wistful letters home to them.  And I was surrounded by guys who seemed only interested in talking about cars, booze, and women.  Didn’t have much in common with any of them, so I felt pretty alone.  I spent my 18th birthday in boot camp.

But boot camp wasn’t all bad all the time (some parts of training were pretty fun), and I did my very best and trained conscientiously.  My gear was always squared away, boots highly polished, my fitness scores were good, I was always studying training manuals, etc.  And I was excellent at shooting.  I qualified “Expert” on the M16A2, first time out.

Around the 3rd or 4th week of training, I got a complete stress fracture in the metatarsal of my right foot, on account of tactical marching on a paved road carrying a heavy rucksack.  I wasn’t too robust a specimen, to start with: on my first day of boot camp I stood 5’ 9” and weighed only 113 lbs.  So it’s not at all surprising that my bones were cracking.

I didn’t know at the time that my foot was broken.  It hurt a lot, but I managed.  When I was wearing my running shoes or boots laced up tight, it kind of “held together” well enough not to be too painful.  I never went on sick call because of it.  When you went on sick call, you’d get harrassed a lot: the drill sergeants would call you names and accuse you of malingering, etc.  So unless you were really, REALLY sick or injured, you just didn’t go on sick call.  It wasn’t worth the hassle.  

Problem was, because of that injury, I started favoring the other foot.  Which of course led to a stress fracture in it, too.  So now I had two feet that were both really painful.  But the running and road marching of course continued, and got longer and heavier throughout training.

I started having trouble running, and falling back on road marches.  Nothing pissed off our drill sergeants more than trainees falling out of road marches.  On a short 3-mile march on a Saturday sometime in mid-September? I guess it was? I fell out completely.  My drill sergeant screamed ferociously at me and pushed and threw me around.  I thought he was going to beat the shit out of me.  He told me to go on sick call on Monday, and if they said I was OK, he was actually going to (beat the shit out of me, that is).  For the remainder of the weekend he made me stand behind the rest of the platoon in formations and wouldn’t let me eat with the rest of the unit and did other stuff to isolate and humiliate me.  That made the already-difficult boot camp experience almost insufferable.

So I went to sick call that Monday.  The clinic doctor took one look at my feet and without even touching them said, “Yep.  Your feet are broken.  I’m sending you to the hospital.”  So they gave me crutches and I rode the bus to Martin Army Hospital there on post.

At the hospital the x-rays showed three fractured bones in my right foot and two in my left.  They let me see the x-rays; one of the metatarsal breaks was bad enough that the bone was basically just three or four big fragments, with some grinding and splintering.  They gave me a choice: either try to let the bones heal naturally, which they might not ever do, possibly causing me problems later in life, or have a metal pin inserted into the worst break, and get sent home for 30 days on convalescent leave.  Well, you can guess which option I took.  They operated, and one time during my few days of recovery in the hospital, that same vicious drill sergeant brought a couple of platoon mates over to visit me.  He didn’t have to do that, and I always thought it was kind of his way of apologizing.

I spent most of October at home, with a pin in my foot and a great big lower leg cast on.  I drove around in my (automatic transmission) car anyway, using my left foot on the gas and brake.  I ate a lot of fast food and junk food that I had missed.

Going back after convalescent leave was heartbreaking.  My great-aunt drove me back to Ft Benning from Tennessee, because my parents couldn’t really take the time off work.

Maybe the worst part was, I had to restart training at week 1, day 1, with a brand new cycle of recruits.  Had to re-do EVERYTHING I had already done.  It was with the same unit, though.  And on the bright side, I had earned the respect of my previously-vicious drill sergeant.  He was impressed that I had soldiered on so long with both feet broken.  He put me in charge of the domestic aspects of the platoon barracks and called me the “House Mouse”.  He also lauded me in front of the new recruits for being tough in the face of injury.  “A bad motherfucker” he called me.  In the good sense, that is.

I (re-)trained with this new platoon from 5 November 1993 until Christmas Exodus, which began around 20 Dec and would last until after the New Year, during which time we all got to go home for the holidays.

One day shortly before the holiday break, when our platoon was performing badly at something, our DS said, “If you don’t wanna be here, just don’t come back from Exodus!  The Army doesn’t consider you real soldiers yet anyway, so they’ll just write you off the rolls!”  This was a really tempting offer for a lot us, but come January, all of us came back except one, I think.  We were never really sure if he was telling the truth, and we didn’t wanna risk becoming deserters.  As much as I hated the Army, I was still committed to honoring my oath of enlistment.

The first week back in January was really hard, for a lot of reasons.  Having to go back to a brutal environment after spending time at home with loved ones, facing the cold grey weather, etc.  Plus, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was very clinically depressed.  (I’ve been in treatment for bipolar disorder for most of my adult life following all this.)

On a cold and rainy Saturday, 8 January 1994, during Phase III testing, our drill sergeant was mad at us for poor performance on one thing or another, and repeated his earlier challenge:  “I TOLD you, if you don’t want to be here, just LEAVE!  Tonight!  The Army will just write you off!”

This time the offer was much more difficult to refuse.  A LOT of us were miserable and took him more seriously this time.

That night, after lights-out, eight of us fled the barracks, and fled Fort Benning.

I set off alone, still wearing my fatigues and carrying a duffel bag with some socks, a canteen, and a blanket or two in it.  The other seven guys broke into the room where our civilian bags and clothes were held, changed out of their fatigues and called a cab.

I had a plan, but not much of one.  I was going to call my mom up in Tennessee and ask her to drive down and meet me somewhere to pick me up and take me home.  I think I knew deep down that that was a ridiculous idea, but I just didn’t care at that point.  Anything to be away from the Army, at least for a while.

I struggled my way in the night through brush and bramble towards the neighboring town of Columbus, Georgia, avoiding roads and well-lit areas.  I knew that being spotted would get me caught, because there would never be a good reason for a lone soldier to be out along a highway on a late Saturday night in full combat uniform.

I finally reached the outskirts of Columbus, and walked to a fast-food restaurant to use their pay phone to call home.  But an off-duty drill sergeant from a different company in the Battallion spotted me, accosted me, and had a unit van come pick me up and drive me back to my Company.  

Although I seriously believed I might then be arrested, sent to Leavenworth and/or shot for desertion, I felt strangely calm.  Like, one way or another, I knew I had to face the consequences of my actions, and was prepared to.  Plus, I knew that one way or another, my Army career would end, and that’s all I really wanted at that point.

There was of course hell to pay.  I don’t even want in to go into how I was treated over the next few weeks.  My drill sergeant, who had over the past five months gone from hating me to being proud of me, was back to hating me again.

I was given a company-grade Article 15 (non-judicial punishment) and had to pull extra duty and forfeit some of my pay for a while.  They were going to “let” (make) me stay in and graduate.  But I was adamant about wanting out entirely.

Problem was, on 28 January I would have been on active duty a full six months, and that would mean there would be no easy exit.  (It was much easier to discharge someone with less than six months of service; in that respect what our DS had told us was somewhat accurate.)

Having attempted to go AWOL and getting an Article 15 wasn’t enough to get me kicked out, though.  So my drill sergeant made up a bunch of bogus infractions on my record, like “not shaving”, “boots not polished”, etc, to make me look like a failure as a soldier.  He had me sign them.  Again, I didn’t care that I was signing off on lies.  Anything to get out.  I also had to write a brief statement explaining that I refused to be a soldier any longer.

The discharge was approved by the Battallion Commander, and I was released on 28 January 1994 with an “Uncharacterized” discharge–neither Honorable nor Dishonorable.  Just a kind of “Entry Level Separation” (ELS) as it was called.

To this day I don’t really know why my DS worked with me on getting me out.  Maybe he genuinely hated me and thought I was and always would be a lousy soldier.  But maybe on some level he saw how hard I had worked to be a good soldier, and had some small amount of respect for me, and let me go.  I don’t know.  I also wonder if he himself ever got in trouble for doing something so stupid as to actively encourage trainees to go AWOL.

I struggled for many years with shame and guilt and embarrassment over what I had done.  To this day, over 23 years later, I sometimes still grapple with understanding what happened, why I did what I did, and I feel ambivalent about myself for it.  I suppose what it all came down to is that I was too young and too weak for the Army, both physically and emotionally.  I was just a small, frightened boy who had some shit luck to get injured and have some bad timing.




Which sing the open truth of my heart