Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
i was at a focus group for trans* feminine folk. Well, it was actually a group of trans women, but i was there and am not a woman so I amended the name in my head. i went for a reason: i wanted the health center to become more inclusive and to provide better service — this is probably unsurprising, but i had some thoughts on how to do that.
During the group i talked about how it would be useful for medical practitioners to not assume that everyone has the same narrative. This seems basic to me, but surprises all the women in the room. They’d all strongly identified as women and seemed very invested in being read as such, whereas i’m not and am invested in being read as trans*. In that space, i claimed the identity of being a faggot with tits.
It was out in the open that i was different than these women. i’d made them aware, and explicityly challenged their assumptions. So, i was surprised at what happened next.
As the meeting was winding down, one of the women smiled at me, looked me up and down and said, “you look good, you’re really passable.” i felt like i’d been smacked in the face. i sighed, but recognizing that this was intended to be a compliment, i searched for a smile and thanked her.
i left, my brain clouded by shock, gasping for sense. i’d told these folks that i didn’t identify as a woman, that i tried really hard to be visible as trans*. Had she not heard any of that? Was she incapable of perceiving my genderqueer presentation?
i was deeply hurt and fairly confused. My identity was dismissed completely. After sitting in a room with these folks for three hours, she still assumed my experience to be identical to hers. Even after telling her i’d lowered my hormone levels to maintain a more androgynous body, she somehow thought it would be an honor, not an insult, to tell me i was passable.
It felt as if i was being lauded for hiding my transness. After the long difficult road that brought me to my current state of trans* empowerment and intentional visibility, i was aghast to find out that i might be passable. What’s more, it felt transphobic, even though it came from a trans* person. If a cis person had said something similar, they’d be devaluing my transness by extoling my beauty based on cis standards, the only difference that this seemed to come from a place of internalized cisnormativity.
The second this thought struck my brain however, i remembered my own sites of internalization. Although i work incredibly hard to recognize those sites and don’t impose them as standards on others, i can acknowledge that this tendency comes from a real place. Our society sets up norms of how people should identify and what those identities should look like. It then links those norms to a social hierarchy based on who fits and who doesn’t.
So, I’ve realized that if i seem to pass to someone, they probably view it as a privilege. They may superimpose their own struggle to pass and congratulate me for seeming to achieve their goal. The truth of the matter, that i often don’t pass (which is sometimes a really great thing and sometimes quite scary), is irrelevant to this scenario. She saw something in me that seemed desirable to her and complimented that.
i was left with several questions and very few answers as of yet. How do i receive compliments that feel like insults with grace, especially when they come from my community How do i simultaneously push back on the idea that because i’m trans* and male assigned at birth, i must be a woman? How do i also work to push the boundaries of what it means to be a woman? How do i do those things while respecting the reality that many trans* women don’t want to challenge those ideas and their identities are valid. How do i balance my gender, my activism, and my respect for others? When those conflict, is it possible to honor each concern? When it isn’t possible, what should take precedent? i don’t have answers yet, but I’m incredibly excited about this set of questions.
Monday, May 28, 2012
i was walking on the sidewalk in the oppressive Chicago heat. A friend and i were on our way to an art show, meaning our feet were padding through an “artsy”neighborhood. As usual, my femme self was window shopping. i caught myself glancing at outfits and wishing that i could wear them, i noticed something about myself. i found myself wishing for fabulous outfits not out of a lack of appropriate funding, which is absolutely a factor, but from a place of fantasy that was all too familiar.
When i was still living as a boy and dreaming of living in another gender, one of my more frequent diversions was walking alone through shopping districts and imagining myself a mannequin. i would stand tall and angular with an archetypal body shape draped in the most femme fabulous that store windows could offer.
i would dreamily stare and sigh, salivating. i was a child gazing at a puppy they know their parents won’t let them have. But the acute sting of feeling incapable of living a life that i wanted to live would become so much that i had no choice but to light a cigarette and walk away. i walked away from hundreds of store windows, thousands of dresses, before engaging my gender actively.
Upon realizing that my current window gazing was, at least in that moment, manifesting in a similar way of fantasy, i turned to my friend and told them, “You know, at this point, i’m confident enough to walk in there, try on that dress, and fucking buy it. But i’m dreaming of it as if that were impossible. i wouldn’t even wear that, my desire is pure fantasy.” i realized i was picturing myself in a new life that would be accompanied by a stunning outfit.
Was this just a moment of jetlag, a lingering tendency toward liberating fantasy? Are there parts of my psyche that still don’t believe that i’ve made it? Have i simply been shaped by capitalist media culture into imaging myself to be advertisements?
i think that the answer to all of these questions is at least a small yes. There are often moments in my life that I will smile to myself, remembering what life used to be like, and welling with excitement and pride that I’ve come to a place of comfort. i, like many folks, have been affected and shaped by an industry insidiously engineered to push fashion. One of the ways that this industry functions is to inspire folks to superimpose themselves into images in an attempt to make them want to buy said images.
But, in many ways, i think there was something else at work. Part of me thinks that longing to be is such a deeply engrained mode at this point that it will continue to lurch into my present. Obviously, part of what i mean by “longing to be” is “longing to be a woman,” but for me it is also “longing to be different.” The former is the more tangible, discernable, locus of my desire to transition. This is ironic, because i rarely, if ever at this point, identify as a woman. But i did pass from a place of default masculinity into one of extant femininity.
This was an important part of my ongoing process, but it certainly wasn’t — and isn’t — the only part. i often want to be different. By this i mean both different from society and different than i am now. Social normativity often feels to me like a fistful of arsenic does to a stomach, i want to retch it up, viscerally knowing that if i don’t do it quickly enough, i will suffer an outlandish death and contaminate others. So i frequently strive to undermine the normativity i’ve internalized and labor to demarcate that difference.
But existing outside society is often not enough for me. Change itself seems valuable, or at least the possibility of change. Throughout my life, changes in either identification or presentation have taught me much about myself and about the world. i’ve learned to understand multiple perspectives and angles, and i’ve learned to be agile and adaptable. i’ve embraced this perspective so much that I will sometimes alter my appearance somewhat merely to challenge myself or to uncover a hidden lesson in the world.
When i imagine myself a mannequin, this is what i’m longing for. i’m longing for a new embodiment so that i can gain a new perspective and play in a new life. This is almost always complicated by the fact that i do, currently anyway, identify in and feel comfortable in certain ways. But this drive that’s been present throughout my life and my transition(s) is certainly nearby when i window shop.
Monday, May 7, 2012
"If you put on a wig you’d look like a tall, skinny girl,” he said.
"If you put on a wig you’d look like a tall, skinny girl.” This phrase has been playing on a loop in my consciousness for four days. i was at work, talking with a coworker about drag. He was excited to be planning his first routine, and i was thrilled for him.
One of my bosses chimed in, saying, “Don’t take this the wrong way,” and i should have walked away right then, “but i think elle should do drag.” Then he looked at me and added, “If you put on a wig you’d look like a tall, skinny girl.”
At this point, i looked him in the eye and said “i’m walking away now, this is bullshit.”
This was outrageously offensive for hopefully obvious reasons. His use of “if” placed my capacity to be a “tall, skinny girl” into a hypothetical category. i’m 6”1, and weigh about 130 pounds. Although tall and skinny are both relative, i’d say i probably fit into both categories. And because my workplace is not conducive to a non-binary option, i’m a girl there. But, apparently not to him.
His adherence to normative beauty standards as essential to gender denied me access to a girl identity. My immediate reaction is to reject that. i want to reject the idea that i should have to meet any sort of litmus test to gain entry into any gender category. i want to cut my hair even shorter and embrace a binary identity. i want to rip down the walls of the category, leaving the bones of my fingers exposed and raw from the labor.
i wanted to scream “THIS IS NOT YOUR BODY TO DEFINE.”
A week ago i was thrilled about the process of embracing an in-between body as beautiful, mine. This moment made me want to recast my body as a girl body, beautiful, different, mine. It made me want to use my body, which is so often a battlefield as an implement of battle; it made me want to metamorphose my body into a pure challenge to normativity.
But this moment also hurt. It ripped the flesh off of my chest and squeezed my heart until i couldn’t bear the pressure. Gasping and crying i also wanted to hide. i wanted my body to be a normative, cis girl body. In a flash i wanted to be 5”4’ and keep my weight. i wanted long hair and narrow shoulders.
i wanted all these things that i’ve worked hard to let go of. Two and a half decades of society telling me how bodies should be is a lot of weight, but its weight i’d mostly learned to carry. i’d shifted it and learned to embrace, even genuinely love my trans* body. But all of that weight turned and snapped and fell down on top of me in an instant. It buried me back in a dark place that it took a long long time to dig myself out of.
Simultaneously, this moment made me want to retreat from the category of girl altogether. It made me feel a sense of liberation. If i don’t fit into a gender box, so be it. i wanted to throw away this category into which i’d been denied access so many times. i wanted to walk away from it, leaving it to wither and die while i flourished in self determined grandeur.
i tried to remember what it felt like to leave the doctor’s office last week. i’d wanted to claim my in-between body and went to strategize with my doctor. They embraced and celebrated this desire to claim genderqueer ground—i’m very privileged to have this doctor—but they told me that they didn’t know how to make that happen for sure.
So, we decided to cut my estradiol in half and keep my anti-androgen, hoping for the best. i’d jumped at this opportunity to attempt something uncertain. Maintaining an andro body, claiming my corporeal reality as queer, was worth the uncertainty. The uncertainty even seemed alluring. Gender challenges have always, despite their hardships, helped me to grow and learn about myself.
i had embarked on a new leg of my gender adventure. When i stepped out of the office onto the street i was elated. The phrase “My body is my own” repeated over and over in my head. A year ago i took steps to begin altering my body with hormones and it was an incredibly empowering and important decision.
Last week i took steps to recognize that i liked the changes and was happy where i was. Somehow that decision, in that moment, felt more important. i was claiming a non-normative space, which helped me to know that it was truly mine, i was not just doing what i thought i had to in order to be a woman. i was claiming ground for myself and knew myself to be unique and beautiful.
But my body is not my own, not entirely anyway. Internalization is a real thing in my life. i looked in the mirror last week, after the incident with my boss and wanted full bottom surgery for the first time in a long time. It was beyond a want. It was a need, and a need with an enormous sense of urgency.
i don’t think that that moment, as hard as it was, was significant enough to make me want bottom surgery. But it did have incredible trenching power. It dug up a pit of body poison that i’d tried—mostly successfully—to bury.
This digging has left things too muddy to see clearly. i don’t know what i really want for my body. i don’t know what i really feel as my identity. Theoretically, i think that i don’t “really” want or feel anything. But in moments it feels like those are true. Theoretically, i think that i’m a product of my society.
i am not without agency. i can push myself to be new things, to resist oppression and normativity, but i am also pressured by society. i am also shaped. i am not gendered in a vacuum. i am a body with agency in a world of pressures. In this way, my body is not your body, but it’s not really mine either.
Monday, April 30, 2012
i’m getting ready to go to the doctor to talk about changing my hormone dosages. i want to find out if it’s possible to maintain my current in-between body.
A few months ago i looked in the mirror. The act of looking in the mirror is nothing special for me, i do it a lot; at least once per outfit. What was striking was that i realized that i was happy with my body. i was enamored with my tiny tits, the relatively light accumulation of fat around my hips and ass, the lessened muscles on my arms that still left behind some definition.
This body is a long way from where it was when i started hormones, but it’s also still a long way from where i thought it was going to end up. When i’d started hormones i wanted to get read as a cis woman, to live in stealth. That was the only trans* story i really thought was possible in my life. That’s shifted.
i began feeling empowered by being trans*. People started seeing me as trans*. Folks began telling me things like “i don’t see you as man or woman, just as elle.” At first this felt unsettling, but as i became more and more comfortable in myself it felt infinitely more affirming than it ever did to be accepted as a woman (although there were moments when that was, admittedly, quite nice). i learned to truly reclaim myself in several ways.
i’m learning to simultaneously embrace a trans* identity and a faggot identity. Empowerment took deep root in harsh sites of oppression, yielding an incredibly resilient growth. These identities may seem incongruent with one another, yet for me they both stem from the same place of resiliently being things that have been cast violently against me. Rejecting the idea that these terms were poisonous, holding them, cultivating them, led me to a self that feels truly comfortable.
i started to wonder how to maintain a body in which it was easy to inscribe both of these seemingly contradictory identities. A friend asked me if it mattered if i was visible as both of these things. Her question came from an understandable, even laudable, place of recognizing that identity and presentation are not always the same.
But i could only say, “Yes, incontrovertibly, i want to be read as both of those things.” First and foremost, this is about how i am able to interact with the world. Whether or not i like it, i have to acknowledge the state of society right now. People read things onto bodies and interact with them differently as a result. Recognizing this reality, i want a body that allows me to interact with the world in the way(s) that feel the best. For me, the least comfortable interaction i’ve experienced is being read as a cis, straight, white man, while the most comfortable is when people read me as a completely unique and deeply queer individual. These moments allow me to feel my interactions are somehow genuine.
Inscribing both faggot and tranny on my body is important to me beyond rendering my interactions. It’s also about posing a physical, sartorial challenge to what bodies are considered permissible, good, and beautiful. Rejecting assimilationism is of unrivaled importance. After working incredibly hard to reject normative femininity and create my own place, it’s important to me to not strive for a body standard that is based in rigid gender normativity.
i want my mere presence to raise this question in spaces i’m in. i want to position myself outside of socially accepted gender categories. i want to open people’s minds to the possibility of other ways of existing, and other forms of beauty. This does not just mean creating a new or unique gender presentation, although this is an important component. It also means recognizing that people read genders onto physical bodies. It means acknowledging that i have taken agency in that process by starting to alter my body and trying to increase that agency by attempting to put the brakes on it at this key moment.
i feel blessed to have recognized this moment as a unique opportunity. Thankfully i’ve found strength in my sense of self as Other, as non-binary, at the same moment that i’m getting read as trans* by almost everyone. Much of this, admittedly, has to do with the way i dress, affect, present, etc. And i am constantly seeking out ways to queer my presentation. But some of it, undoubtedly, has something to do with the visibility of my in-between physicality.
i’ve also started to notice that i’ve been getting read as female slightly more frequently, and was recently told by someone that i’m “passable” (As unsettling as that moment was, as that word always is, i’ll address it more in a later post). Each time that i’ve “passed” has felt uncomfortable. It always feels like one of the most important vectors of my life has been rendered insignificant. Quite simply, i am not cis and do not want to be thought of as such.
The slight increase in frequency of being read as anything other than trans* as been alarming, and left me with a sense of urgency. i want to act in time to stop this from becoming my reality. i did not come out only to eventually hide again. This is not to say that trans* people who choose to/want to be read in binary ways are hiding, simply that my identity places more emphasis on trans* than it does anything else and i want that to be visible. Were i to feel more emphasis on being a lady, i would probably feel significantly different, and want to be read as such.
i also want to retain visibility as a faggot. That is a part of my history and my life as well. At this point, when i flirt with people whom i read to be gay men, it is (at least with those who are more queer and/or open) well taken. i’m still perceived to be a like being in some way. Although i do not identify as a man, i do retain a sense of self as faggot and don’t want to give that up. i don’t want to give up my capacity to interact with the world in that way, much like how i don’t want to give up interacting with the world as trans*.
After getting stuffed into trash cans while hearing that word, and then coming to embrace it, it’s not something i’m wont to give up any time soon. With trans* (in)visibility, being read as a cis woman would erase my transness. With my faggot identity, being read as a woman would erase my faggotness. This is something that’s been hard to describe to people, who often can’t seem to grasp the idea of a non-male faggot. But for me it is about my history, and also about resistance.
More simply, this process is about honoring the fact that i’m truly happy with my body. It’s about cherishing the fact that i really do feel beautiful in my own skin. That was the purpose of going on hormones in the first place, so it simply makes sense to try to halt the changes when i’m happy with them rather than trying to achieve some prescribed normative standard.
Unfortunately, i haven’t been able to find any useful information on this topic, so i’m not entirely sure that it’s possible to balance an in-between body. This lack of information is probably just another case of erasure of non-normative bodies. But after telling another friend about how i was feeling, she encouraged me to call my doctor. It seemed so simple and obvious to just ask and try. So i’m getting ready to go and am hoping for the best.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
As i stretch milk for a cappuccino, sweet steam rising toward my focused face, my friend and i are discussing gender. She’s a fierce, wonderful, and loving lesbian that somehow makes me feel safe and open. This is especially significant because the environment in which i work is otherwise often very hostile.
She off-handedly says, “I see you as a third thing.”
My eyes burst wide and begin to glow. A smile blooms across my face as a heart begins to bloom across the drink that i’m pouring. i pass this commonplace thing of beauty to its owner and turn to my friend. i lift my right leg and bend it at the knee in a gentle, delighted excitement. i am completely abashed.
All i say is, “Really?” But i perch on my toes and i can feel my face still beaming.
My friend apparently doesn’t notice this. She only hears the word. i watch her melt into panic; sweet caramel syrup dissolving into espresso. Her shoulders tighten, her eyes narrow. I don’t know if she’s more worried that she’s hurt me or more terrified that i’m about to go off on her.
“Well, no,” she backpedals.
i clear up my reaction and try to explain that i was full of sheer delight at hearing her comment. We return to our respective tasks and i begin a long process of reflection.
This feeling of being neither/nor in regards to the gender binary is often difficult to express or convey, especially on a day-to-day basis. i notice chocolate and sweet grass scents in the espresso i’m making as i realize that i have gotten to that place. My heart feels exactly the way the coffee smells.
This elusive space beyond binary identification is gorgeous. I remember all the times people have said things like “I don’t see you as a man or a woman, I just see you as elle.” This isn’t to say that trans* people can’t or shouldn’t identify as men or women, just that i feel empowered and liberated in this escape from identity boxes.
In these moments i feel free to be me, outside of social expectation. But, like espresso, if i draw on this experience too long it begins to pale and bitter. Chocolate and grass fade to dirty lime.
i focus on my friend’s worry that she’d hurt me by creating a category that separates me from Womanhood. i remember that as a trans* person who was assigned male at birth, i am expected to embrace a normative femininity. It is assumed that i will strive for a hyper-femininity, an above-and-beyond womanhood that will somehow allow me to vault myself over a wall of sexism into what is perceived as “the” other gender category.
i note a singe on the roof of my mouth. A burning bitter pinch spans my palette. i recognize this expectation of trans* folk to prove their gender in assimilationist ways that completely fulfill traditional binary gender roles as transphobia. It’s social poison.
This poison leaves trans* folk in a position of society attempting, at all costs, to recast us into the genders we were assigned at birth. If our femininities aren’t feminine enough, if our masculinities aren’t properly masculine, then we’re told that we’re not trans* enough. If our genders aren’t normative, we’re told to try harder. This is a standard that cis folk aren’t held to. Cis folk with non-normative gender presentations aren’t delegitimized in this way. This form of transphobia is buttressed by sexism, making this trend incredibly stark and virulent for trans* feminine people.
Sometimes this bitter trend is reversed by a misplaced allyship. For me, as a genderqueer trans* femme, i struggle with hyper-affirmation. Don’t get me wrong, affirmation is so welcome and i couldn’t possibly be called beautiful too much. But people are often too focused on affirming their assumption of what my transness means (i.e., they think i’m a woman, period) to acknowledge the significance of my non-binary identity. For me, this is often almost as frustrating as being recast into masculinity. Its genesis is a similar place of assumptions and failings to acknowledge my self-identification.
i lose focus and milk begins to boil over the top of the pitcher. It burns my fingertips and glues my paws to the situation at hand. This is transnormativity. This expectation that i’m trying to achieve entry into “the” other category of gender makes it more difficult to exist in “another” category.
This expectation, stems from a callous misunderstanding of trans* as a singular possibility refuses to allow trans* to be fluid and free. Even when i’m doing all i can to present a non-binary gender, even when i verbally express my non-normativity to others, i am recast, i am limited by others assumptions and expectations.
Then i remember that i don’t like my espresso bitter, or my paws hot and sticky. i rinse my hands and start a new drink. i remember that my friend saw me as “a third thing,” and that it was only when she reflected that she found herself in a bind. It was only when she felt pressured that she uncovered her troubling preconceptions.
i notice that i was perceived as i perceive myself. i remember that i can be, and often am, read in a way that feels congruent with my sense of self. i remind myself that transnormativity comes from a privileging of certain types of narratives. i believe that this normativity can be interrupted and undermined. i know that i can resist normativity, both as a political structure and as a pressure in my life. i engage. i tell my story. i tell a different story. i am doing this work with pride. i feel myself as a third thing, as a resistant thing.