Contemplations on queerness, transness, and other Otherness.

Monday, January 30, 2012

survival: turning oppression into energy

       Survival is tough. We don’t give evolution enough credit. Out of all the creatures to have ever been, those that are present now made it through a lot. Those still around are the ones that had the strength to survive their environments; they adapted. I think this is a perfect trope for queer folk; it’s certainly how i see myself.

       Queer life can be tough. Our society is fiercely normalizing. Our culture works very hard, and is fairly successful, at rendering us invisible and irrelevant. We’re denied jobs, housing, healthcare, affirmation, etc. And we experience a very high degree of violence as a demographic. Despite all that, we’re still here.

       The fact that my queer body is still breathing means that i haven’t given in to all the pressures to conform or die. Despite how frequently each of those options seem easier than living the inherent difficulties of my life, i’ve refused to give up. i want to be proof that no matter how vicious our society, it is possible to both self-determine and survive.

       This sometimes means utilizing strategies that aren’t necessarily socially acceptable. Over the course of my life this has meant a lot of things. It’s meant adopting a punk-inspired, no fucks given, attitude. It’s meant accepting the fluidity of my own identity, because boxes seem to suffocate. It’s meant strategies of dissociation: drugs, alcohol, and melancholy music. Its meant damage control: smoking, and controlled self-harm. It’s meant limiting time in more dangerous places and rarely leaving urban areas. It’s meant finding strategies of self-care: reaching out for support, cultivating compassion, meditation, crafting, and writing.

       These strategies, and their varying degrees of health, are all responsible for the fact that i’m still here. Each one has meant that i’ve stayed on this earth. This is something i actively choose to believe has value. This is not out of any sense of arrogance, but i feel like there is still work to be done. This world still needs to be made more safe, more compassionate, more accepting of fluidity and variance. This is work that i’m driven to do; and i do this both actively and by simply existing as visibly queer.

       This realization has led to the need, and the capacity, to turn oppression into energy. To me, this means creating things to shift our society in the general direction of compassion and understanding. My most frequent method to do t
his is writing. This may sound obvious, but i believe that writing about experience, especially non-normative experience, carries a value in that it can open folks to broader levels of understanding.

       But it also means fighting to make spaces safer. Fighting may seem incongruent with compassion, but i’d operationalize the term in a very non-violent way. When i fight i seek to make spaces that i inhabit more inhabitable. Whether this means checking people’s assumptions in dynamic, and hopefully effective ways, or something more callous, there is a constancy of confrontation. i use this word despite its connotation. By confrontation, i mean looking a situation in its eyes, recognizing difficulty, and choosing to engage in a way that is positive.

       Each time i encounter something negative, i try to find a way to leave a trace or ripple of change. Frequently, for me, this means shouting at folks who harass. In these moments i hold no illusions that compassion will change minds, i simply hope to foster an environment where folks recognize that the things they say will not always go unheeded and unchallenged. Often though, this requires more tact and discipline.

       When assumptions or statements are more tacitly problematic (read: subtler forms of racism, trans-misogyny, ableism, body image standards, etc.) i coax from myself a more dynamic and gentle form of fierceness. In these moments i strive to not put folks on the defensive, allowing myself to take small steps of growth with someone. These processes are often more frustrating for me, especially in my longer term relationships with folk. i want them to instantly “get it,” but recognize that change and growth are inherently slow processes that require commitment and cultivation.

       This is something i’ve been consciously engaging with in my own life for longer than i’d like to admit, and lord knows i’m still not perfect. So i try to breathe, and do the patient work of consciousness raising, all the while treating every moment as an opportunity for both activism and personal growth.

       Turning my oppression into energy also means that i try to push the radical and queer circles i’m in as well. Our work and our interactions operate multi-laterally as a challenge to hegemony and power, and to be the most effective in that process need to be conscious and engaged. In this regard, i’m as committed to challenging folks who are on-point as much as i am folks who aren’t.

       It means taking in moments and using them to reveal gaps in our culture and coming up with creative ways to fill those gaps. Currently, for me, this means working with and challenging institutions that are semi-inclusive, or inclusive in name but not so much in practice. It also means slowly building longer term projects that will hopefully work to shift consciousness and foster openness on a more-than-individualized scale.

       This work seems valuable. i hope to look back on this strategy and feel that i haven’t wasted my time and my energy. i hope that transforming my oppression into energy is as fruitful as it feels. At the very least though, it helps me to survive the tougher moments in my life, and that, in itself, has immeasurable value.

Friday, January 27, 2012

fraying categorical consciousness

       i made a ball of rag yarn. It's a beautiful cluster of scraps. A ratty spiral of remaining bits of cotton that i had turned into 50's dresses, dutifully and cleverly recycled into a tediously beautiful artifact. It's been on proud display on my bookshelf for months.

       One of my friends recently asked me what it was going to be when it was done. i responded the only way i knew how, "it is done."

       This caused me to reflect on a few things. There's a certain sense of utility as being necessary for a thing to have worth. My friend would have understood the point were i making a scarf, something that could be used or worn. Something, frankly, that fits into a pre-constructed category of value. I think my friend would also have understood were it something that was classically beautiful. Again, the key here is this idea of pre-constructed categorical value.

       The fact that my yarn ball was both an end in itself, and is atypically beautiful made it difficult to interpret or accept. i'll be honest, i've always been attracted to a certain type of aesthetic. DIY culture found its way to my heart years ago, and i've been alienated from a lot of people for it since. But the point here is not what i like, or even why i like it.

       What's interesting to me is the general incapacity of folks to consider things for their own merit, independent of social mores. This is where i locate a link to gender. There are sharp, binary, cis-centric categories, into which human beings are mangled and crammed. There are even a small handful of non-cis categories, or categories that bend the binary a just a little. But the minute a person starts to stray from said categories, they enter a realm beyond the understanding of most folks.

       Over christmas my uncle referred to me as "young man," and quickly apologized and corrected to "young lady." i was thankful for the acknowledgement of his mistake, it meant i didn't have to internalize it and carry the weight. And, for the purposes of this essay at least, i'm going to willfully ignore the categorical disparities between "men" and "ladies." It’s the existence and enforcement of categories that’s interesting.

       i found myself thinking, "why can't i just be a 'young critter?'" Although i sometimes identify as a woman, i primarily do this out of necessity. There's not a category for my gender. i'm trans-feminine, sure, but that's just a generalized sense of directionality for me. It's a far cry from a location, and an even further cry from a permanent or solid location.

       Unlike my ball of rag yarn, i'm not done. Queer theorists call it fluidity. i just call it openness. Openness to change from within myself. Openness to catalyzed change from the outside world. Openness to daily shifts of whim and fancy. Openness to a multiplicity of identities and expressions coalescing into a single being; a single being driven to allow that tattered multiplicity to twist itself into a ball of creation.

       This incapacity to accept the idea of a fluid nature is perhaps an even bigger obstacle to overcome. If my identity were solidly and consistently one thing, i could probably come up with some sort of functional definition that allowed people (and this assumes they're willing and putting forth effort) to understand my gendered sense of self. If i always identified as genderqueer, which i sometimes do, i could patiently explain that and fight for an understanding of a singular unique identity. But, because my gender is both non-categorical and in motion, i'm left in a self-specific jam.

       Getting people to respect my femininity is hard enough, but a lot of people do. (Not so) sadly, i don't have the privilege of a binary identity. This is sad because i'm frequently reduced to using lowest common denominator descriptions of self, purely to accommodate people's incapacity to allow for my flux.

       This is not so sad because my gender is absolutely my own. i say this with zero sense of certainty, but, i think that type of consciousness is not one often achieved. So despite the hardships of living a gender that is difficult to describe or identify, i relish the hard fought privilege of living in a gender that is comfortable.

       Like my ball of yarn, my gender is made of frayed scraps. It's twisted around itself into a, not so cohesive, whole. Different colors and patterns shine through depending on the angle of view. An amalgam in style and texture. A potential to adapt and remain beautiful, even if that beauty is expressed in a wholly different fashion.

       Again, like the ball of yarn, this makes folks uncomfortable. i've been asked why i shave parts of my head if i want to be read as a woman. i've been brazenly told that my identity must be a masculine one on days that i wear pants. i've been told, to my face, that i look scary. Every one of these incidents, and countless others, was based in another human being's incapacity to accept that i, the queerly gendered creature in front of them, do not fit neatly into a category. Each of these moments happened because my gender is beautiful in its own way.

       It's unfortunate that people are incapable or unwilling to stretch their capacity to understand beyond categories. A perfect storm of socialization has armed our society with an ignorance that forces me to be at odds at almost every possible turn. A binary induced rejection of otherness has left me with very little choice save to be an apocalyptic little ball of yarn that is resilient in its beauty.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

miss categorization

       A cisgender female co-worker recently said to me that, “Real women have vaginas.” Putting the insensitivity of saying this to a trans-feminine person aside, this statement is problematic for obvious reasons, and is personally frustrating for other, not so obvious reasons. Very basely, this statement obviously invalidates the identities of pre-op and non-op trans women, who are women, regardless of their genitalia. Further, it implies that folks with vaginas are all women, regardless of how they identify. And fuck all of that.

       This was an incredibly hard thing to hear in my workplace, in which i fight every day to be respected and to be seen. The communities and interactions that i choose are (mostly) affirming and positive. And when they’re not, it’s a conscious trade off i make to be involved in said communities. But, like many folks queer or not, i don’t exactly have choice in my workplace.

       This statement sank into my heart and left a rock in my stomach. It hurt. Despite the fact that i know, at least academically, that gender and genitalia are not linked, this statement incited a lot of pain that my co-worker was able to walk away from and i am still carrying.

       Instantly, my brain began the all too familiar process of responding to trauma. My consciousness fled my body, leaving my brain a mechanical husk, incapable of emotion or real interaction. This was the safest place for me to be. At that moment, my only other option was one of an intense breakdown and self-violence; an option that became a necessity later in the day. But at that moment, i had to work, because i had to eat.

       So i spent the entirety of my shift completely vacant, lost in vaguely sad dream-space that i can’t ever quite locate. This is the same place i have gone when i’ve been attacked, mocked, hurt in myriad ways. This is a place that i’m coming to identify with my job more and more, because the frequency of deep pain inflicted is so great there.

       i was reminded of my ex, who invalidated my opinions, ignored my identity, and upon breaking up with me talked about getting to be with real women. Each time i left my post to use the washroom i looked in the mirror and hated what i saw. This is not something that normally happens to me. i have waged a war in my head and on my body and am sometimes truly able to shake off social normativity and think that i am beautiful. i consider these sometimes moments to be a miraculous triumph. For me, this negativity came from the outside and pervaded each corner of my heart.

       It’s been two days and i still haven’t quite shaken the odd feeling of detachment. i want to truly return to my body, but both cannot do so, and am afraid to do so because of the imposed violence that now lurks there. But what i really want to talk about is the concept of realness.

       Our society has set up rigid standards for folks to trace their identities to. These standards are usually the aforementioned biological essentialism. The next tier of openness is allowing for a binary, medicalized transition. Regardless of how “accepting” these standards may be, they are still standards that don’t function for all people.

       This concept of being required to meet said standards before being viewed as real is, to me, one of the most hurtful possible ramifications of normativity. i am starkly aware that i am not often seen, at least not wholly seen. My experience with the constancy of at least partial invisibility has left me both resigned to this being a fact of my existence and committed to this being the impetus of my resistance; The relative weight of each of the aforementioned shifting dependent on my general level of wellness at any given moment.

       Regardless of the specific invisibility in a given interaction, some element of my identity is ignored. People conceive of me in a whole mess of ways. Some have told me how they see me, some have strongly implied, others treat me as if i were a man. In almost every interaction, some aspect of my reality is excluded.

       This common social tendency to construct categories, into which things fit and become real, leaves me in an impossible quandary. Do i accept the aforementioned categories as valid? No. i don’t, truly. However, my understanding of the inapplicability of a given category in validating my sense of self is most often irrelevant to other folks’ readings of me.

       i sometimes wonder if, in these types of moments, people see me as fake. And i don’t mean “fake” in the, often sexist, way of pointing to vapidity. i mean truly fake; do people see me as attempting to fit into a category in which i cannot fit? Do they consciously invalidate my identity? If they do, what internal language is used?

       i tend to think that folks readings of me are not so conscious; everything i’ve learned about sociological theories of Othering suggests that this process happens on a subconscious level in society. But it is so conscious and present for me that i cannot help but wonder. i cannot help but to feel that folks must, on some level, recognize the incongruences that they seem to glaze over when interacting with me.

       i don’t know how much any of this matters. But i do know that i feel real. My blood and my tears are real. The sadness of being rendered invisible feels real. What i do know is that it’d be nice if other folks started treating me as if i were real.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

learning consent 1 (in anticipation of future learning)

       My life has changed a lot since an incident of partner rape several years ago. Much of this has been merely congruent change, but much has also been consequent change. Some of this has been unconscious, involuntary. My body twitches and spasms a lot. i startle easily. i feel intensely vulnerable and more scared than beforehand. In the couple months directly following the event, i took enough drugs to block out the sun but not the pain. This habit shifted for a few years into alcohol and meaningless sex.

       Eventually, i cleaned up, came to, and did a lot of active healing and trying to understand my reaction to this experience. Most importantly, i learned about consent. i’m talking about real consent, not just the “they didn’t say no” variety. The fact that my partner hurt me taught me that i could hurt people. This is a lesson i haven’t taken lightly, and a lesson that actually makes me thankful for the experience.

       i’ve learned to be careful with others. i’ve learned that things that i mean to feel good might not. i’ve learned to ask. i’ve made it habit to ask if people are ok, if what i’m doing feels good, if they still want to be there.

       i’ve learned that communication happens in different ways for different people, or at different times. Sometimes asking “Are you ok?” works well, sometimes it seems more effective to ask “Are you here? Do you want to be here?,” or “What do you want in this moment?” i know that i’m more comfortable with certain methods of consent at different moments.

       i’ve learned to look for subtle cues. These are often cues that i’m aware that i give, like a muscle spasm or a lack of eye contact. But i’ve also taught myself to learn with people, to listen to their bodies as well as their words. i have worked hard to acknowledge that i can hurt by not actively working at not hurting.

       And i’ve learned that if i hurt someone, i can check that and support them if that’s welcomed. In my own life, it’s not the worst thing to be hurt, especially accidentally, but that a lack of acknowledgement and support feels much worse for me. In recognizing this, i’ve tried to become open to hearing other folks’ experience and trying to provide what they need in a given moment.

       At some point, it dawned on me that consent wasn’t just important during sex. Consent is relevant in every interaction. A conversation or question can be as unwelcome as a touch. So i try to check in when things get heavy. i want to give people the capacity to shift as needed, and to ask for support if they want it.

       None of this is meant to imply that people cannot handle themselves. i’ve simply found that it’s easier to self-advocate when given explicit room. Again, this is not to say that folks cannot stand up if they need to, but i want to work to make that easier. i’d like to set the precedent that it is ok to have needs in any given moment, and making explicit room for them is a way that i work toward this end.

       i’ve also learned to self-advocate more clearly. i’ve learned to say no, and other ways to slow, stop, or shift situations, sexual or otherwise, that make me feel unsafe. This is not universally true, but is increasingly so.

       Further, i’ve learned the importance of initiating, and participating in, check in conversations outside of whatever event. Even if something was totally ok, it’s nice to have space to say that, and to appreciate that if something wasn’t ok there would be space for it. This tends to make space feel safer in the future, and cultivating safe futures feels incredibly important.

       None of this is to say that i, or people in general, are dangerous and terrible, or that contact of any sort should be wrought with fear. Quite the opposite, really. People can be fantastic. This is only made better, in my experience anyway, when i know that support and openness are norms. Simply having this space for “no” seems to make “yes” so much fuller.

       Learning to cultivate this space, learning to support, learning to acknowledge my capacity to damage, has made me thankful for my rape. Despite all the hardships that came from it, that still come from it, it was an impetus for a profound change in my life. This change has made me a better person, and has hopefully made the lives of those around me feel safer, if only for a moment. For this, i am deeply thankful.

a path where a location should be

Originally posted at In Our Words

       As a basic introduction of my current sense of my gender, i identify, among other things, as both trans and genderqueer. For pronouns, i use “she/her/hers.” And if you can do it with respect and understanding of significance, “it.” i use “she/her” and identify myself to most folks as a trans person — or sometimes as a woman. i don’t do this because it represents a true understanding of my gender but because it’s the closest most folks can come to understanding my sense of myself.  This is especially true given our culture’s current climate around the subject.

       That said, i see myself as “neither/nor” in relation to the man/woman dichotomy. i don’t mean that i’m between genders; i’m not. There’s no “man” here at all. i’m, at least in some ways, femme. But i mostly identify as a queerly gendered creature beyond category. i didn’t come to this unique understanding of my gendered self overnight. It’s been a journey, one i’m very much still on.

       In some ways, my narrative fits the commonly known, and somewhat accepted, transgender narrative. i have memories of longing that predate a lot of other memories. i played with Barbies, dreamt of being a Disney princess, hung out with girls growing up. Like many, a normative gender was forced on me by culture, and i learned to hide my feelings from the world and myself.

       But that’s where my story stops fitting the “capital-S” Story. In high school, i found the punk scene, thank god, and learned strategies to not give a good god damn — or at least to pretend with a relatively high degree of success. i painted my nails and responded with a “so fucking what?” to remarks like, “He thinks he’s a girl.” i took dance classes. I learned to fight, both literally and figuratively.

       i went to college and hung out with activists and Gender Studies kids. i dyed my mohawk pink and presented even more queerly. Thinking of myself as a punk-rock faggot and as genderfluid, i started seeking hormones and taught myself how to do makeup.  i experienced a lot of harassment and harsh violence. So, i hid again, this time more consciously. i grew a gnarly beard and cultivated hyper-masculinity into a wall. When i looked in the mirror, i saw a mask. i learned to live with that.

       But it was an untenable strategy and my queerness resurfaced, a cetacean coming up from the depths for air. i got into therapy — because i was under the impression that this was a prerequisite for a hormone prescription. i started taking estrogen and tried to present in a more classically feminine way. i thought that might be easier. But again, i looked in the mirror and saw a mask.

       i felt like feminine standards fostered a lot of self-loathing and self-violence. i committed myself to tearing femininity down, brick by brick, and reconstructing it in a way that didn’t feel poisonous. i was cultivating a femininity that was, in no uncertain terms, completely my own.

       i re-shaved my mohawk and became empowered in the trans part of my identity, in my visibility. i was, and am, something not “normal,” and am at peace with that reality. i am something new and unique unto myself. The harassment started again, but it mattered less. It can still get really hard at times, but this time, i knew i had exhausted all other options. Eventually, and luckily, someone referred to me as “it” respectfully. Someone else said, in a very affectionate way, that they saw me as a creature. It took a lot of reflection, and i was terrified at how hard that identity would be to live. But it felt comfortable, felt right. i came to embrace my itness and sense of self as creature and as Other.

       This is hard for a lot of people to really comprehend, but my gender is just different like that. It’s still evolving, as creatures are wont to do, and reacting to the world. It will probably always operate in this way. My gender has been more of a path than a location and this is sometimes incredibly difficult. But, the newness feels right, the uniqueness gives me perspective, and the queerness feels like home.

Monday, January 16, 2012

a lady and a faggot? why, yes

       Am i a man? Absolutely not. Not even a little bit. i haven’t identified in this way in a very long time. Even the last time that i externally identified as a man, i internally identified as “trying to be a man one final time.”

       Do i have sex with men? Not cis men. Not in a long time anyway. i have. But i’m currently in a relationship with someone with a different gender than me, meaning i’m not even in a homo relationship in the classical sense of the word. My sense of self as faggot has absolutely nothing to do with either my gender or the gender of those i fuck (or desire to fuck).

       What purpose then does this contradictory identification serve? Well, i’m often read as male. Because of my visible queerness, in these cases i am doubtless read as a queer male. My identification as a faggot is not, however, intended to legitimate this misreading in any way. It’s also not any sort of attempt to reclaim maleness, it’d be tough to reclaim maleness while actively identifying as not male.

       My faggot identity used to be a reclamation. It was a way to embrace the fact that i had sex and lust and swish that were seen by much of straight culture as offensive and Other. This identity was often, though not always, accompanied by a visible queerness. Purple polka dot hair, glitter nails, an attitude and a purse.

       Faggot, for me, was an embodiment of bodily resistance more than it ever was a sexual identity. That much is still true. My body, my life, is a locus of resistance. Merely by living in the world in a way that is comfortable to me, congruent with my sense of being, i am forced to resist.

       i daily resist standards of normativity. Macro-culture tells me time and again that i should be a Man. That i should stand tall, work hard, wear loose fitting pants, and a whole mess of gendered bullshit that absolutely does not fit. Hyper-affirming cis women often affirm my femininity while simultaneously ignoring all other elements of my identity. Transphobic elements of cis gay culture cast me as a traitor, a person to weak or afraid to be gay. Although this doesn’t recognize the strength and honesty that it takes to be me, it is something i’ve heard and read more than a few times. Mainstream trans culture encourages me to transition "properly," to pass, and to “be just like everyone else.”

       But i’m not like everyone else. i’m a faggot. i’m a lady and a faggot. My existence beckons me to be a site of resistance. i resist feminine beauty standards that i both can’t and don’t want to achieve. i resist these standards both on grounds of their broader legitimacy and on grounds of their general aesthetic. For example, i think that it is oppressive that our society tells its femmes to tan until they’re orange. i also find this de-natured norm unsettling on a very visceral level.

       i’m a faggot and a lady and i resist ignorant affirmations that “i’m normal and just like everyone else.” i don’t want to fit into a binary category. i don’t want to be read as cisgender. i am, and want to be read as, something new and unique.

       i’m a faggot and a lady and i don’t support family values. i don’t think that my people, queer people, should have to make our families fit the template of normative families. Our families should fit our needs, our desires, our visions for the future. Our families are our legacies, and our legacy need not be that of either patriarchy or imperialism. Our legacy is one of adaptability, of love borne of necessity and oppression. Our families should reflect this.

       My faggot identity is my resistance to both the imposition of these norms by culture at large and a resistance to the assimilationist elements of the LGBT (and no, there’s no Q solidarity here at all) movement. i’m a faggot and i’m less worried about a marriage contract allowing me to visit my partner in the hospital than i am about transphobic doctors refusing provide them the services they need, or worse.

       i’m a faggot and a lady and i’m an anything but a consenting target. i walk in the world the only way that i can at this point. i live my truth every day. This makes me a target. Fortunately, at this point, i have the strength to resist the (non)solution of conforming to gender standards as a way to avoid abuse. My sense of self as faggot allows me to walk in the margins and refuse to comply with rules that don’t apply.

       i’m a faggot and a lady. i’ve been raped and attacked and mocked and i refuse to quit, refuse to hide, refuse to give up. Those identified as faggots have historically been resistant, simply by existing, oppressed yet alive. This identity offers me an alignment with that oppression and that endurance. My sense of self as faggot is much of how i do not become closed off from the world, distant. This aspect of my identity allows me to live and to love.

       My queerness is rife with identifications that may, on the surface seem to conflict. And i admittedly use a lot of words to describe myself. These words often shift and change depending on the day or the situation. They all serve different purposes. But i’m a faggot and a lady, and i have learned how to embrace contradiction and to resist with heart and teeth.

Monday, January 9, 2012

queering space, carrying safety

       Anonymity is a privilege, while visibility can be a boon. Not that either is always a choice. People often just get read how they get read, and that can change, whether they want it to or not. i had an experience a few months ago that helped me learn to appreciate my visibility in a new way. A way beyond allowing (some) people being able to see me the way i see myself.

       Someone that frequents the cafĂ© i work at struck up a conversation while i was ringing their order. i mentioned something about being queer, and i am very obvious in my queerness. They asked me to get coffee with them. i had read them as a cisgender punk kid, this was my assumption and i will own that.

       Anyway, when we got coffee, they asked me my pronouns and inquired about my transition in a seemingly overly curious, yet respectful way. At first, i thought that maybe they were just getting used to the uniqueness of their new friend. But then, out of the blue, they came out to me.

       They told me that they’d been feeling very uncomfortable in their assigned gender. They described themselves as wanting to be androgynous and unreadable. Without delving too much into their story, they put themselves out there in an incredibly vulnerable way.

       Of course i listened intently, and supported them the best way i know how. They eventually became a good friend, and someone i consider with the fondness of a queer older sister for a younger queer sibling. Later though, i became introspective.

       i realized that my visibility operated in a way that affected people beyond myself. Prior to this, i selfishly conceived of my visibility as only affecting how people treated me, and felt differently about this at different moments. But here i realized my visibility allowed me to alter spaces, to carry safety with me. My visibility was now a shining beacon to others. It allowed this person to feel safe and comfortable in their vulnerability, in many ways because they saw themselves as a “like object.”

       i had recognized my visibility to other queer folks as a method of achieving solidarity and welcome into spaces. But i’d never thought that my queerness could create an aura of safety for others. i was instantly accessible as a person with answers and insights, a person that could offer support and a safe ear.

       i spend a lot of my time organizing safe spaces and educating those around me and writing on gender. i quickly came to embrace this newfound benefit of my visibility. i, by existing, was service, was safety. My capacity to queer spaces simply by existing in them began to become more apparent to me. i found myself reveling in it quite often, letting it wash over me and fill me with joy and love.

       i won’t pretend, even for a second, that i always like being visible. i get harassed a lot. From my conversations with other folks, it seems that i get harassed more than most folks in my generation/location/etc. I think that the level of harassment that I experience is, in large part, consequence of my visibility. Although after these moments i always come back around to the self-empowering idea that i don’t want to change my presentation to avoid said harassment, i acknowledge that my visibility often carries a price.

       But when my newfound friend was able and willing to reach out to me, it made that price all the more worthwhile. My visibility was no longer just about my own comfort and sense of self; not that these are invalid in any way. i was emboldened by this additional element of visibility. i began to see it as an elegant boon, and i began to notice it cropping up again and again. Visibility became something that i can use to carry safety for the Other with me like a torch, and that’s not something i’ll soon forsake.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

interrogating binary affirmation

       Some of my cis-woman friends are incredibly affirming of my femininity, and i can’t say i don’t appreciate this. Gender affirmations are few and far between, and i deeply appreciate the support in my life. But i’ve had a few interesting situations occur that have caused me to interrogate the nature of said affirmation.  One friend told me “Oh, you’re not a tranny,” after i had identified myself as such. Upon reading a piece of mine in which i referred to myself as a “critter,” another friend similarly stated, “You’re not a critter.”

       While i appreciate the intent, which is doubtless one of wishing to make me appreciate the fact that my womanhood is valid, and the attempt at helping me to cultivate my self-esteem, these types of comments limit my capacity to self-identify. Their attempts to respect (their understanding of) my identity have the opposite effect of rendering important components of my identity invisible. My identity is rejected in favor of what their conception of my identity should be.

       In both of the above cases, and others, people attempt to insist upon my having a binary identity. It seems that the first case stemmed from an unwillingness to acknowledge the capacity of transness itself to have value. i am not a cis-woman. i never have been, and i never will be. i am proud of my transness, it gives me strength and power and insight.

       To render this invisible is further privilege cis identities. Cis identities are normative, expected, cast as that from which one can deviate. This deviation is then understood by society in myriad ways; these various understandings are often problematic and minimizing. To impose that a binary identity, a “now the other gender” identity, is the best means to respect someone who self-identifies otherwise is problematic in the same ways that refusing to respect a binary trans-person’s identity is.

       Most self-identified allies would immediately recognize the need to respect someone’s shift from male to female or female to male. And these shifts, obviously, should be respected. But to assume that these narratives are universal and are the way to respect all trans and queerly gendered folk follows the same logic structure that assumes that an at birth gender assignment is somehow more legitimate or real than any other gender identity or expression.

       The second instance seems to have stemmed from an incapacity to internalize my identity as a queer creature. This one is admittedly more difficult; i even find it more difficult to describe than my understanding of empowerment in transness. That said, this understanding of self is as, if not more, central to my identity.

       Despite the fact that i do often identify as a woman, i also identify as something other, something beyond man or woman. This identification is not even one of “between” genders; and here there’s at least something of a template within certain communities.

       To deny my conception of self as a creature delegitimizes another aspect of my gendered sense of self. This is an expression of solidarity with non-human creatures who are not confined to a social gender in the way that we, as humans, are taught to be. This solidarity is not, however, a political one. My claim to creatureness is not an act of defense; it’s more of a method of understanding.

       This is not to say that other beings don’t have gender. They may. There’s potential evidence for it, although that would be imperialistically imposing our social construct on another species. But that’s not the point here. The point is that my creatureness represents my understanding of my own capacity to construct my gender in different and fluid ways. My creatureness allows me to respond to my environment, my community, myself.

       In both of the above cases, the purpose of affirmative solidarity is defeated in the attempt. In trying to respect my identity, my identity is rejected in favor of their conception of what my identity should be or can be.

       Now, in both cases, i appreciate my friends’ attempts to help me deconstruct internalized transphobia. And i do think this is what they intended to do. What’s more, i have internalized transphobia that leads to self-violent thoughts. This, i think, is a perfectly understandable response to being trans in an incredibly transphobic environment. And, when i say things that actually are transphobic about myself, i really do appreciate the help of folks who care about me in checking said statements.

       However, my empowerment in my transness and my understanding of my own creature status are not ramifications of my internalization of transphobia. i think a better way to handle this would be to simply ask for clarification. In the context of a respectful conversation about gender i would not be offended by a question like, “Why do call yourself a tranny?” or “What do you mean when you call yourself a critter?” Shifting from assumptive support toward dynamic openness would truly help our society as a whole to push forward an understanding of, and respect for, gender variance.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

pronouns are not a preference

       i've been thinking about a trend within queer and trans-aware circles of asking someone hir pronoun preference. Although i do think it incredibly respectful to ask someone's pronouns, the language of "preference" here is intensely problematic. There is nothing preferred about my pronouns.

       My pronouns are "she/her/hers," or if i give you explicit permission, "it." That's all. There's nothing preferred about these pronouns. They're simply the way(s) in which my gender can be accurately and respectfully referred to within the grammatical space of pronoun usage.

       The all too frequent way of posing the question, "What pronouns do you prefer?" or "What are your preferred pronouns?," carries an agonizingly problematic social weight. Defining someone else's pronouns as "preference" preserves the privilege of the person making the reference to use the pronouns of their choosing. It reifies the capacity of the speaker to gender the referent.

       Unfortunately, people in our society are not often allowed to self-determine their gender. Typically gender is assigned at birth, and enforced rigidly, even violently. This trend is made more starkly apparent in the stories and experiences of queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folk. Our genders are consistently questioned, or harassed, or belittled, or simply disbelieved.  The trend of gender as being something that is done to a person, rather than by a person, is indicative of the nature of gendered oppression in our culture.

       What's more, to consider a queer or trans persons' pronouns as preferential distinguishes them as inherently different than the normative framework in which cis pronouns operate. This differentiation creates separate linguistic planes; planar separation here is intrinsically linked to an existent gendered hierarchy.

       Admittedly, i expect this to be my experience when i’m interacting with relatively unaware non-queer folk. It’s a sad fact of life given our current society. Now, this is not to say that this cannot change or that we shouldn’t work toward an increase in awareness and gender sensitivity in our culture. But, the world won’t be perfect when i wake up in the morning.

       What’s more troubling to me is that the issue is carried into queer circles. Frankly, i hold these people to a higher standard. There’s an increased exposure, and it follows that certain hierarchical trends shouldn’t continue. But they so often do.

       This language of preference is one way in which that process takes place. Imagine asking about someone’s preference regarding something non-gendered. Say, for example, you’re going out to pick up pizza and you ask, “What topping do you prefer?” Say then, that the person responds “olives,” and then the pizza place doesn’t have olives. Not to be too presumptuous, but you’d probably bring back a non-olive pizza. This may be accompanied by a tacit apology or deflection, but at the end of the day, it would most likely be ok to not have olives on the pizza. This is true because that’s a preference.

       Gender doesn’t operate in this way. My sense of self is not your option. By asking someone what pronoun they prefer, what’s being implied is “I will try to respect your identity but I may fuck up.” There’s a sort of deflection here. Allowing one self to conceive of acknowledging a pronoun as anything less than absolutely necessary is completely disrespectful to a person’s identity. Someone else’s identity is no one’s option save hir own. Period. To not own the responsibility of respecting a person’s pronoun is an oppressive operation of privilege, and needs to be checked if we’re ever to gain a liberated sense of gender.

       So, what are we left with? How does one express respect? Why not simply ask, “What are your pronouns?,” or “What pronouns do you use?” These methods both acknowledge the fact that someone else’s pronouns are not truly known until they’re explicitly stated. This is good, because it checks the possibility of assumption. What’s more, in these phrasings, the burden is appropriately placed. The person’s pronouns are cast as theirs, as necessary.

       This is a point where I am thankful for English grammar, and this is a rarity, because “pronouns” is plural in the above phrasing. This can refer to a single set of pronouns (ex. Ze/hir/hirs), because a pronoun set contains multiple pronouns. It also allows for a person to claim more than one set of pronouns; it allows for a complication of identity at the discretion of the person answering the question.

       After the above question is answered, and the responsibility placed where it belongs, it’s necessary to respect said answer. i can’t count the number of times i’ve heard queer folk say something to the effect of “I just 'they' everyone because it’s safer.” i’ve experienced this myself, and it feels so incredibly disrespectful. It either means that a queer person has willfully disregarded hir capacity and responsibility to inquire about how to respect, or has ignored the fact that a pronoun has already been made explicit. In either case, the importance of self-determination is cast aside as unimportant.

       Don’t get me wrong, i’m all for using neutral pronouns when they are appropriate. However, these can be as ignorant of one’s gender as using an incorrect binary pronoun. When someone calls me “they,” they aren’t acknowledging either my femininity or my sense of self as a queerly gendered creature.

       Sadly, queer space is often the only space in which i even stand a chance of not being rendered significantly invisible. This trend of universalizing “they” relinquishes the responsibility to accurately refer to someone and makes queer space unwelcoming and un-affirming in the same way that non-queer space is.

       So let’s get it right. Let’s get it right in our community, and then let’s spread it. Queer folk are under constant fire from the outside world, we shouldn’t face the same problems within our own circles. What’s more, we’re constantly expanding our sphere of influence merely by existing. Whether we want to or not, we’re setting precedents for the future of gender in our world. Let’s not continue the old, patriarchal framework in which gender is not defined by the Subject. Let’s shift this dynamic in our community now so that we can then expand self-determination in broader culture as well. But, disregarding politics, let’s work to respect each other for the sake of respect itself.