02/12/2013 03:11 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Ethics of Gender Transition

Last month, following blogosphere chatter about the impact of transition on spouses, I posted about my own transition and its impact on my family. I said that it's important to hear both sides of this story, particularly as the process of transition interacts with the evolution of the structure of the American family, marriage equality, and our understand of gender. This leads to fascinating debate on very many levels, from many perspectives.

Last week "The Ethicist" in The New York Times posted a question and response on this very issue. I'd like to say that preventing this pain and suffering is why I, and so many other activists, do our work -- so that the next generation can become themselves early enough in their lives that there will be no such collateral damage downstream. It's sobering for me to reflect on the reality that women like me, with my life experiences, will, in all likelihood, no longer exist in two generations. That's a good thing, on balance.

We should step back a moment and recognize that this column would never have been published a decade ago, let alone two. In that respect it marks significant cultural progress. Twenty years ago trans parents almost always got divorced, lost custody of and, many times, any access to their children. Until a decade ago divorce was a prerequisite for genital reconstruction. That seems silly today, with a majority of Americans in support of marriage equality, which is legal in nine states plus DC. But that change was part of the cultural shift away from defining women in strictly sexual terms, and accepting only one way of being a woman. When such surgery began fifty years ago in this country it was assumed trans women were transitioning simply to be able to have heterosexual sex with men. No other reason was even considered. That has now changed completely for the better.

The core issue for the trans community has been the columnist's comment, "Your sadness is tragic, but at least it's confined to yourself." This is something with which every adult trans person with a family I know has grappled. The best transitions are not easy, and I've had one of the best. Spouses and children must deal with the consequences, whether in a supportive or a hostile environment. I know no one who wished this social and personal trauma on her family. My exes are supportive, we still get along. My children have been very supportive, and very resilient. I do know, however, that none of them considers my transition the preferable outcome for themselves. From their own self-centered perspectives, life would have been (easier, happier, simpler . . .) had I not transitioned. That, however, is not a simple calculus, because a broken spouse and parent will do unintentional harm to the family as well. And that harm may include suicide and its sequelae. So our sadness, or more accurately, existential angst, is rarely confined to ourselves, even if it may appear that way from the outside.

We should recognize that children are far more resilient than we believe they are. Love, and honesty, go a very long way, even with severe social and personal stress. And thankfully we're mostly past all that Freudian nonsense about absent fathers and clinging or refrigerator mothers.

As an aside, it seems to me that The New York Times continues to struggle with trans issues. While they have Professor Jenny Boylan writing occasionally, and have done some wonderful magazine stories over the years, their reporting leaves much to be desired. And, clearly, there is no oversight on columns such as this one by Mr. Klosterman. I'm not one who believes that only experts in their particular little subspecialty should be speaking about their field, so I don't want to see only gender specialists respond to questions like this one. We need more generalists, and public intellectuals, as we had back in the 1940s-70s - people like George Orwell, Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould and Christopher Lasch. Today it's easier than ever to bone up on one specific issue before commenting publicly. I wish Mr. Klosterman had taken the time to do so.

I hope people take from this that one can have a superficially successful and happy life, with a spouse, family and career, and still be completely miserable and want to kill oneself. The existential happiness under consideration here may seem abstract, but it's a fundamental aspect of being human. Socrates said, "Know thyself." Sometimes that knowing leads to pain and suffering. I work for the day when honesty and understanding precludes these situations from ever having to occur.