Contemplations on queerness, transness, and other Otherness.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

this is because i am out: notes on visibility

Originally posted at In Our Words

       So often i hear people tell stories about coming out in specific moments or about getting outed. It always causes me to wonder what it’s like to get outed in a traditional sense. What does it feel like to have an identity that can’t be seen? Although i often feel that i’m invisible to people, it’s not quite the same. My invisibility stems from peoples’ incapacity to fully acknowledge or accept my identity, not from an actual lack of visibility. What does it feel like to have that identity made visible against one’s will? i imagine it could make one feel vulnerable. Maybe it could also be empowering to be seen for a moment. Maybe something else that i can’t imagine.

       This is not to say that i don’t get outed, i do. i out myself. Every time i meet someone, they are instantly able to see my queerness. It can be really hard sometimes, given most of our society’s reactions to queer and transgender identities.

       Last week i scared someone in a bathroom. i was using a women’s room in a restaurant in Iowa City. When i opened the door to leave, i met a woman face to face. She recoiled in horror and shock. She looked at the other bathroom door, trying to figure out which of us had made the mistake. She looked back at me, her face still contorted. This is because i am out.

       A few days ago someone i casually know was talking to me and a coworker. Most of our conversations have been one-on-one, and as a consequence, have not called for any personal pronoun usage. This time, however, he referred to me. He started to use one pronoun, stuttered, started to use another, and stuttered again. Then he walked away from the conversation, mid-sentence, to avoid either challenging or affirming my gender. This is because i am out.

       Within minutes of meeting someone, she said, “I really admire the bravery of what you’re doing.” There are too many assumptions in this nine-word-phrase to unpack in this 755 word post. Suffice to say, she read some aspect of my queerness and attempted to affirm me in a very patronizing way. This is because i am out.

       A self-identified gay man once asked me about my pronouns. Being the honest creature i am, i told him “she and it.” To the latter, he responded in disgust and dismay. He told me it was “objectifying and dehumanizing.” He took my self-identification and vigorously raked it through the stagnant mud of his preconceived notions of acceptability. This is because i am out.

       Someone once threw a sandwich at me from a school bus. This yellow hunk of metal was barreling down the street while i was waiting at a bus stop. One of the students saw my queerness from far enough away to rifle through their bag, decide they’d rather not have their lunch that day, and shout “Are you a boy or a girl?!” while hurtling their food through the cold wind. This is because i am out.

       A few weeks ago a CTA bus pulled over on the side of the road, passengers in tow. The driver started honking and cat-calling. Four inch heels under a 6’1” femme is an admittedly visible thing. That said, i don’t know that it calls for harassment. This is because i am out.

       Sometimes though, being visibly out can be tremendously affirming. Even though other people can see these aspects of me and frequently give me shit, my people can see me too. A trans person that frequents the place that i work frequently says, “Hi creature,” upon seeing that i’m there. This is consistently the warmest part of my day. Afterward, i walk around floating. This is because i am out.

       i ran into someone i know casually on the train the other day. We started talking about what he was going to wear on his date that night. i told him he should wear something fierce and fabulous. He responded to this suggestion by saying that i was a “different kind of beast.” He can see my difference. This is because i am out.

       Queer people consistently come out to me, seemingly at random. i think that the visibility of my being out helps them to feel safe. Queer people consistently tell me i am made of sunshine and beautiful. Their tacitly flirty compliments are welcomed by my being out. So often, these moments follow yucky ones that are seemingly wiped away by these affirmations. This is because i am out.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

trusting an archer, trusting myself

       My back is pressed against warm metal. The heat becomes tactile comfort as it absorbs through my ratty t-shirt. Tears dry on my face leaving tightening trails of salt on my otherwise perspiring skin. i’m 15 years old and i’m lying on the hood of my friend’s car, the engine still hot from the drive.

       My heart is broken. A love lost seems to afford infinite pain without the chance of healing. This is worsened by the fact that i do not know who or what i am, and i am painfully aware of this lack of knowledge i purse my lips around an illicit cigarette in hopes of finding comfort in this act of embracing destruction. This is met with some degree of success. My sobs have faded into breath, yet i remain hopeless. How can life ever be worthwhile? Without love? Without self?

       My eyes meet the brilliant Wisconsin sky, stars no longer obscured and fractured by saline sadness. Tiny points of light come into crystalline focus. i notice one pattern in particular. Seven distant points of light have sent waves across eons to meet me in this moment.

       i recognize Orion and stare in wonder. i become infinitely small and feel my body in waves. i begin to resonate with the universe. This pain is a part of the spiral shape of the universe, meted out semi-formulaically to all who draw breath. Somehow this fatalistic perspective affords me further comfort. i smoke and eventually i doze. i awake with the morning dew and meet a new day.

       Fast forward. It’s five years later and i’m wearing black, all black, from my knit cap to my shoes, even my keffiyeh is black. i’m also wearing points of light. My clothes are covered in broken glass. A not-so-close friend and i had gotten in a car-totaling crash during an Appalachian blizzard.

       We had been stranded for a few days before i could catch a bus out of Clearwater, PA. i had taken 2 buses already, am on a third, with the daunting reality of two more to go. The fact that i cannot attain a more direct route is confounding.

       i press my face against cold glass, the buttons on my black cap ticking against the window with each jolt. Sighing, i stare off the edge of a mountain into the oblivion beyond the atmosphere. i feel alone. Even when i eventually reach my destination i will still feel alienated from all of my surroundings, and i still do not know myself. This fact has become even more acute in the years after the moment in Wisconsin.

       Again i am greeted by seven distant balls of heat. i inhale deeply, the crisp air cooling the depths of my lungs, and i remember. i remember that i can see Orion from home. i’ve been able to see Orion from every place that i have ever thought of as home. i recognize it as a touchstone and i realize that perhaps home is something that is with me.

       Flash ahead again. The next year i am still wearing black. i’m attempting to push down a consistent alienation from myself with desperate grasps at identity. Tonight though, i’m also wearing pink. My floppy mohawk has been brightly dyed to cast a queer contrast to my ostensible militancy.

       i’m lying on my back on the roof of the Pilsen apartment i’m staying at. i’d spent most of the preceding summer in a valium haze, giving myself temporal distance from a rape that i blocked out of my psyche after it happened.

       Apparently i couldn’t block it out forever. i had read something that led me to remember. Remembrance in a flush of feeling. A body memory. A reliving. How had that happened? i immediately recognize my subconscious’ capacity and motivation, but i cannot not imagine a way forward and question its wisdom in cluing me in at this moment.

       So i’m lying on my roof, drinking shamelessly out of a bottle of merlot. This is a love affair that will last quite some time. i look to the street for answers. Seeing only pollution and trucks and desolate streets i look skyward. It’s a cloudy night. It’s windy and cold. But i won’t go back inside, or else i can’t.

       i look skyward and eventually the clouds break. They reveal an archer, pointing toward a truth. i open my mouth and i scream into the emptiness and i cry. i am not open to guidance from the universe. i cry. i want this to be circumstance and i try to believe that it is. Eventually my sobbing becomes too heavy and i too tired. As i lay on the tar roof, resigned, i become open. i will give myself time and space to heal. i do not yet recognize that this will be a life-long process. i breathe.

       A couple years and a couple genders later i am in Iowa City. i’m generally more in tune with myself. My struggles have shifted to a place of explicit self-awareness. Again i have lost love. i’d worked to learn to trust again after a long abusive relationship. That trust has been hurt, as have i.

       i’ve come to visit a friend and am hoping to clear my head. My friend invites me out to their back porch for a cigarette. Some comforts seem ageless, so i accept. As i step outside i meet a friend older than time. i can only discern one constellation between the clouds. i breathe deeply, i haven’t thought about Orion in a long while.

       i press my back against the house to feel something other than spiritual conspiracy. This has the added effect of shielding me from the wind. i look at my friend, who somehow seems to understand the significance of the moment. i look back at the sky, tears beginning to well, an old pain settles in and overwhelms. “You just somehow know, don’t you?” i become grounded. i resolve to try to trust in my own strength.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

self-checking my ableism

       My perception of my identity and the reality of my life as a result, have made me more receptive to the unique oppressions of other groups. i try to be aware, not merely of other vectors of normativity, but also the ways in which that normativity is (re)produced. Recently i’d been thinking a lot about the standard of able-bodiedness. This process led me to also think about standards of able-mindedness. i’ve been interrogating my own ableism and trying to check my privilege and policing.

       i’ve been explicitly challenging myself in the past few weeks to eliminate language like “crazy” and “insane” from my vernacular. The colloquial use of these words seems to operate in the same way as epithetical usage of terms like “gay” and “tranny.” Frankly, this is not a cultural norm that i want to reinforce.

       In this process i’ve found that, for me, this type of language was very present. i often define (and i keep this in present tense explicitly, as this is a process that is still quite current and active) things that i see as irrational or bad in this way. By linking these definitions to irrationality and badness i play into a cultural process of stigmatization.

       Like with many other things, people exist and operate along a spectrum of varying ability and need. No single point on this spectrum is normal, they are merely different points. To play into the cultural idea of “craziness” seems to delegitimize folks lived experience by casting them in this negative light. To paint someone’s thoughts or actions as “nuts” is dismissive on the grounds that their brain should function like a mythical normal brain. i don’t see this as different than when folks dismiss queer and trans experiences in similar ways.

       So i’ve been working to cut this language out. In realizing how common it was in my vernacular i have struggled to redefine the way i think about things that i don’t like or don’t understand. i’ve been searching for language that is more accurate to what i actually mean in the first place.

       i’ve defaulted to the word intense a lot. i’m not yet sure if this is better, but it is definitely a step in my personal process of growth around this issue. i often find myself saying that things are “crazy” when i feel overwhelmed.

       My lack of understanding does not equate to someone elses' “craziness,” and i’ve been trying to own that. i’ve also found that this process has led me to try to understand people more explicitly. i’ve asked for clarification more. i’ve found myself being more open to people about my uncertainty about their meaning or intention. This has created spaces for conversations and common ground that i would not have found before starting this process.

       i’ve also begun to notice how common this is in other peoples’ dialogue as well. i’ve tried to challenge other folks to grow with me. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. But i am making conversations happen, and i tend to think that is a good thing.

       i’m far from done here. This is the beginning of my ownership of a specific vector of my own privilege. i hope that it continues to bring me growth and insight. But more than that, i hope to find more ways to challenge ableism on a cultural level because all people deserve to have their varying needs and capacities acknowledge, honored, and respected.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

plain donuts and the normalization of normalization

       Today at work—i work at a coffee shop—someone asked me for a donut. However, she (i read her as a she, and will own that) didn’t simply as for “a donut.” She asked for “a plain donut.” This is where the challenge ensued.

       Now, i knew exactly which donut she wanted. There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in my mind, and, for the record, i ended up being right. But i have a bone to pick with the concept of “plain/normal/regular.” Fortunately, in my line of work, there are literally hundreds of opportunities to pose challenges to this way of thinking.

       So i drug the moment out. It could have been over in a flash of money and smiles; i could have sent her on her merry way quite easily. But i chose not to. i pretended not to know what she meant. “Which one?” i asked.

       “The plain one,” she repeated herself as if the issue were one of decibel level instead of clarification.

       “i don’t know what’s ‘plain’ to you, that’s very subjective,” i began playfully. “This one is covered in powdered sugar, is it ‘plain?’ What about the frosted ones, those look pretty ‘plain’ to me. Then, of course, you’d have to choose what’s more ‘plain,’ black or white?” i framed with a wry smile.

       i posed these questions in a friendly way, both because i wanted to keep my job and because i wanted her to be receptive to the lesson i was trying to teach. That said, i waited until she gave me an adjective that was actually descriptive of what she wanted and not laden with normalizing values (she chose, “the one that is just cake, with nothing on it)”before i gave her the donut she wanted.

       This wasn’t just to be rude, and i really do think that she was receptive. But the pervasiveness of this idea of “plainness” or “regularity” is incredibly frustrating, especially as a trans person in the service industry. There’s an assumption of a standard from which all things deviate.

       At the café where i work alone there are so many manifestations of this logic structure. There are “plain” croissants, which are cast as having no flavor when compared to their almond and chocolate neighbors. But, in reality, they taste like butter. They too have a flavor, but this flavor goes unacknowledged. Butter is apparently the whiteness, the straightness, the cisness of flavor. It is the flavor against which other flavors are measured, thus it is allowed to remain invisible.

       There are “muffins” and “vegan muffins.” In this case, the dairy content of the former category is obscured in an invisible language of normalcy. The vegan muffins are linguistically rendered as different, that which requires a modifier, while the dairy muffins are allowed to remain the unquestionably Normal muffin.

       The problem here goes beyond difficulties in communication. There are so many repeat interactions in the coffee industry that one quickly learns exactly what people mean when they use certain phrases, regardless of whether or not these phrases are accurate or descriptive. Further, i’m a relatively savvy individual and can usually discern meaning, if only by utilizing clarification questions.

       The issue here is that the process of normalization is itself normalized. People often perceive certain choices or characteristics to be neutral, rather than perceiving whatever choice or characteristic to be merely one on a spectrum. Other choices or characteristics are then, by necessity, labeled as deviating from a norm as opposed to just being one of many possibilities.

       This perfectly mirrors identity based normalization processes within macro-culture. Beyond the café, (and frankly, within it as well) these processes result in the largely unacknowledged dis/privileging of various identity categories. Categories that are constructed as normal are privileged while those deemed other than normal are assigned various adjectives, rendered visible, and denied certain privileges in the process.

       i would argue that this not only mirrors broader normalization processes, but reinforces them by making the process itself seem more normal and more innocuous. What’s the harm of asking for a “regular coffee?” Nothing really, at least not outside of any sort of social context. Although, as a note, people who don’t drink caffeine often have incredibly limited options at cafés, and while that sucks i wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as oppression. But again, the process here is parallel. At the end of the day although the phrase “regular coffee” is not necessarily playing into a (dis)privilege power dynamic, it normalizes the idea that there is a normal.

       If there is a normal for everyday items, then normal becomes an everyday word. It’s meaning, and all of the problematic nuance behind it, is obscured by the sheer amount that it is used. Normalizing normalcy in this way makes it easier to cast other things as normal, easier to understand the world as full of things that are either regular or irregular.

       Because this is both an easy way to construct things and is rendered invisible as a process due to the frequency of its use, normalization has become something that, not only do people participate in without realizing it, they also become relatively incapable of understanding the process itself. This is kind of like how it’s hard to truly be aware of air, because we breathe it and are surrounded by it. This is true in my experience at least, insofar as it is difficult to help people to understand how normalization processes happen, how frequent and consistent they are, and how they impact people who are constructed as not normal.

       That said, i have also noticed that once people get it, they really do seem to get it. For example, i was having a conversation with my mom about normalization, one of many. One day i broke down the example of “ethnic food,” and she really seemed to get it. Since that conversation, other conversations related to the idea of normalization have become much easier. It’s like there’s a normalization map onto which other various processes can be superimposed and more easily understood.

       This is not to say that there isn’t nuance between normalization processes. But it does seem to be easier to see where it is happening once the concept is cohered. Inspiring and cohering this concept is what i hope to achieve in attempting to render the process more visible in my day-to-day life. i hope that people will realize that their actions and choices are not normal, they are just on an array of possible actions and choices. i hope that this understanding will grow to a realization that they themselves are not normal, but are one of an infinite array of possible people.

       Further, i hope that they will realize that when they play into a normalization process they are participating in the continuous creation of society, a society that other people have to negotiate. i hope that they realize that their constructions of normativity have very real implications for others’ lives, implications that are often difficult and problematic. i hope that they realize that this is not just about a donut, but is about identity and visibility and oppression.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

a beautiful blemish

       “i am going to be a blemish on your ugly society.”

       This is the way that someone i used to know described his personal draw to a punk/metal presentation. At the time, i was a 21 year old punk activist. The statement resonated with me immediately as a truth of my being that had not yet been put in words so accurate or succinct as “i am going to be a blemish on your ugly society.”

       Holy Jesus fuck. How powerful?!

       When i shaved my first mohawk i said something to the effect of “This will make people not want to talk to me, and i don’t want to talk to those people anyway.” This was before punk became incredibly accessible and the advent of bro-hawks. At 14 i was aware, on a relatively conscious level, of social processes of Othering.

       i’d been an Other before i became a punk. i was a sissy. i was a nerd. People told me i was a faggot, and maybe they were right. But punk was the first time that i was able to own my Otherness; it was the first time i got to construct it for myself, the first time that i got to utilize it.

       i knew that this would add another degree of separation between myself and the broader group of people who either harassed me, or didn’t interest me at all. If they didn’t want to talk about anything other than popular comedy movies, we probably weren’t going to be all that close anyway.

       So i patched the holes in my jeans with flannel and embraced a newfound cultural dissonance. i embraced it completely because it did more than just create a buffer between myself and mainstream culture. It was more active than that; punk, for me, was directly resistant of cultural standards that i would never quite meet anyway. i was a skinny boy, and this was in the era of bulky guys in Hanes commercials, not the heroin-sheik hipster masculinity that is cast as ideal these days. i wasn’t everyone else, nor was i what i was told to be.

       It allowed me to not give a damn about what people thought, to be myself… not be really, that’s not quite right. It allowed me to create a self. i painted my nails and learned to self-advocate. It felt so incredibly empowering to give people a pink-polished middle finger in response to their homophobic hate. Here was a homo-punk response to spin their hate back around; i had found a way to stop internalizing others’ cultural violence. i didn’t need to worry about their norms, because i was different. i could fight back.

       Then i learned to turn that fight into one that was broader. i became active. My newfound consciousness of my outsider status gave me perspective. Not only could i actively separate myself from a poisonous culture, i could turn around and push it back, try to shape it into something healthier. i learned from punk culture. Punks created their own media, their own communities, the “culture” in “counter-culture” was vibrant (albeit, admittedly, not perfect).

       DIY cultural construction became useful to me as organizational tools. A show could be a fundraiser. A zine could introduce people to an issue. With some speed ball, some old nylons, and a picture frame i could screen-print slogans onto patches. i was trying to push people to reconsider normativity in everyday moments. They’d see a patch, or disgustingly beautiful photocopied poster, and they’d have to confront something within themselves. Maybe they’d walk away thinking whatever fucked-up thing they thought before, maybe they already tacitly agreed, maybe they actually reevaluated an issue or two, but they were made to be aware… of a blemish.

       Later on, i changed my name and started living in a different gender. Initially i tried to embrace a relatively binary femininity. i should have known better than to think that anything “normal” would fit, but i would be lying if i pretended my femininity had always been explicitly resistant (besides the inherent resistance of transness, that is).

       The day i stopped attempting to fit into a binary was much like the day i got my first mohawk, albeit a bit more consciously this time around. i realized that i had begun to internalize our society’s poisonous feminine beauty standards. i had taken as truth, despite my explicit radicalism and feminism that I needed to be a certain way to be beautiful. Skinny. Pore-free. Makeup caked. Appropriately dressed.

       None of that was going to work for me. So, i made a choice to commit myself to deconstructing femininity and rebuilding it. i sealed that commitment with a new mohawk, one that would eventually turn into dreadlocks. i began presenting in a way that made me hyper-visible.

       This hasn’t been easy. Not only do i take a lot of shit from folks for my non-binary presentation, i also fight myself. There are still deep pangs of wanting to look like women on magazine covers. But i don’t actually want that and am working to de-internalize those feelings. They were implanted by a society that dead-set on continuing a centuries-long legacy of Western patriarchal dominance in the form of rigid beauty standards.

       i want to resist that. i am committed to cultivating that resistance within myself. My resistant form of transness draws on my prior understanding of a punk aesthetic to reevaluate what is or isn’t beautiful. The process has been difficult, but it’s been incredibly cleansing, even liberating. Hopefully it continues on this path. i am trying to be truly holistic in separating myself from social expectations that are built on poisonous cisgender standards. Most days i look in the mirror and like what i see.

       i am my own form of beauty and am a blemish on an ugly society.