Contemplations on queerness, transness, and other Otherness.

Monday, March 19, 2012

a new tool in my tool box

       (Note: i discuss strategies for intervening in problematic social moments. i do not talk here about people and communities that are consciously open to growth. Those spaces do exist in my life and certainly need to be reflected upon, but that is not the purpose of this piece. Here i talk about folks i know casually or who are not open to acknowledging their place larger systems of power).

       i used to be a spy. i wore a beard and lived as a man. But, for most of my conscious life i was unabashedly a feminist (a word that i am not totally sure of at this moment, but was then). Because i was read in the way that i was, people assumed they could say whatever they wanted without being challenged. There was a “just one of the guys” logic applied to me, leading people (cis men) to think that i would buy into their sexism/homophobia/whatever. Needless to say, i was given ample opportunity to call bullshit on people, and did.

       After presenting more queerly, i started hearing a different kind of shit. This new kind of shit was either blatantly hateful, or unwittingly ignorant and hurtful. It was often directed at me. i cannot claim to have a perfect strategy for dealing with either of these.

       In the first instance i am often confrontational. i don’t pretend that i’m going to change any of these folks minds through confrontation. If someone is being purposefully transphobic, there’s little chance that they’re going to be open to anything that i have to say. My logic here is that, at the very least, i can make them wary of saying fucked up things to queers in the future because one yelled at them once.

       This strategy also helps me to survive in my soul. By this i mean that i don’t have to internalize what was said, if i can find a way to turn it back on someone. i’d often rather acknowledge the bullshit, openly and fiercely, so that it doesn’t weigh on my soul. i don’t like being left wondering if it would have felt better if i would have said something.

       Although, i will admit that sometimes i choose to not say anything. i will occasionally, willfully let moments pass. This comes either from a place of being too tired for a confrontation and just wanting the moment to be over or from fears of physical safety. i respond more to the former, as physical safety is something that i willfully give up to walk out my front door looking the way that i do, but both are very real parameters in my life.

       As for the other type of shit, the more subtle kind, my responses are trickier. It used to be easy to just call something out for what it was. “That was transphobic because ____” somehow seemed to carry more weight before i was being read as trans. At this point in my life i am often dismissed when i call things out as being oversensitive. i literally cannot count the number of times that i’ve been told to grow thicker skin (or some variant of “toughen up” logic).

       This type of response totally discounts how resilient i actually am in being able to put up with the shit that society throws at me and still be true to myself. i’m going to place that aside for now because the folks who tell me to “toughen up” are not typically open to this fact.

       i’ve been struggling to come up with a new method of intervention in moments so that i can still have an impact and not be immediately discounted. This has been difficult, as i really am most comfortable and articulate when i can face things directly.

       i’ve been trying a strategy of humorous interventions. i was hesitant to try this, because i worry about minimizing moments and disallowing for the discussion that i feel needs to happen. That said, because folks have started completely discounting my opinions, those conversations were not happening anyway.

       To illustrate my meaning, here are a few examples:

       i was talking to someone about the weather, as it’s been inordinately hot in Chicago. He said “I don’t like the sun, I’m such a pussy.” Obviously this is sexist and gross. In the past i would have said that, and then hopefully had a conversation about how discursively using “pussy” in that way reified x, y, and z power dynamics.

       But, i chose to forgo that and simply smiled and said, “i don’t know what you’re talking about right now; my pussy loves the sun.” i didn’t get to talk about systems of oppression, i left that invisible and am still unsure how i feel about my part in that. But, this person laughed, and sighed at the same time. There was a look of recognition on his face. Maybe he saw how “pussy-ness” had nothing to do with his self-claimed inability to cope with heat. He said “I’ve got nothing to say to that,” and walked away.

       So, i think that i got to put something out there where i would have otherwise been completely incapable of intervention due to my specific marginalization as a radical trans person. Further, i got to laugh and throw this person’s ignorance back at them in a very queer way. Something here felt empowering.

       A few days later i asked someone their name. They asked “What do I look like?” Again, my instinct was to explain why that question was problematic: that it assumed that names (which are often gendered, racialized, etc.) are a thing that can be assumed about a person (and thus that gender, race, etc. can also be assumed). i wanted to tell them how often people don't believe me when i tell them my name is ellie. In light of the success of the previous instance, i got cute and fierce.

       i tossed my head back to the right, femme and cocky, and said “Honey, i’m a tranny, i am not going to assume shit about you.” Again, this person seemed to get a bit of my point. Maybe they didn’t get the whole discussion of power and assumption in our culture, but they really did get something.

       i don’t know what to make of all of this just yet. i certainly don’t want to undercut the fact that real conversations need to be happening around these issues. But maybe this strategy is a way to get folks to begin to open up to the possibility of having those conversations. Maybe these gentle, humorous reminders are disarming in a unique way. Maybe they have a place. How to know when that is the right strategy and when to actually call something out is still up in the air for me, but i have a new tool in my toolbox and i’m excited about that.

Friday, March 9, 2012

i used to be a boy: challenging trans-normativity

       i was walking down the street with some queer folk i know. The wind on my back was cleansing, and made me feel as if i was being lifted into another world. We were laughing together while telling each other queer bar stories. i’ll make sure to post the whole story later, because it’s worth telling, but that story is not this story.

       The point is, i started telling a story about how made out with a boy on the dance floor of a straight bar. One of the important bits of this story is that i was a boy at the time… it created conflict. This is storytelling people, conflict is supposedly important. What’s more important though, is that’s just the story, that’s how it went down. i mean, i fudge a bit. Again, its storytelling, but the truth of what happened is that i was a boy making out with a boy at a bar that doesn’t condone any sort of faggotry and conflict ensued.

       That’s as far as the story got though, unfortunately. My friend, upon hearing me say “i was a boy at the time,” decided to intervene.

       “You were being read as a boy anyway,” she said.

       “No,” i defended, “i was a boy once. There was a time when that was true.”

      Thankfully, upon correction, she accepted this as being true. But i was reminded how much society wants to hear a trans-narrative it’s heard before, one that it knows how to process and respond to, one that’s been iterated time and time again. Even large segments of the trans community want this story to be reiterated by other trans folk. We can circle back around to this later, but basically there are some components of trans-normativity that are expected in trans stories, some of which are listed:
  • That a person has known about hir transness throughout their entire conscious life.
  • That a person experiences hir gender as being polarized from that which they were assigned at birth.
  • That a person, before transitioning, is merely hiding; that hir negotiation of hir assigned gender is somehow false.
  • That a person’s sense of hir gender is stable, unchanging.
  • That a person must be dysphoric about aspects of hir body that aren’t seen by binary accepting folks as congruent with their self-identified gender.
  • That a person will naturally seek medical alterations to hir body.
  • That a person’s transness must be a site of pain and sadness.
       This list really could go on for days, but i’ll stop here for now. The difficulty here is that that’s not my story. Some of those things are sometimes true, or partly true, or forcibly and retrospectively true, but literally none are always, absolutely true.

       Any time i tell a story that doesn’t match some of these components of trans-normativity i am met with disbelief or correction. People seem unable to accept my stories as true. Sometimes i read this as people actually being incapable because the hegemonic story has become so normalized. Other times i read this as folks being well-intentioned, albeit misguided allies trying to help me edit internalized transphobia out of my storytelling.

       The truth of the matter is there was a time that i both lived as, and identified as a boy. There were periods before this when i wasn’t sure of my gender, or was sure of having another gender. There were, obviously, periods after that period when i didn’t identify as a boy. And there were, admittedly, at least two distinct periods when i didn’t identify as a boy but lived as one.

       These are all different stories for different days; the point here is that i was once a boy. i have a lot of history there, some of which i absolutely cherish. Out of respect for myself, i own that and fiercely challenge any attempt made to assimilate my experience. My past is a part of my present; it’s a path that brought me to this now. It’s a path that i’m very much still on. To disavow that past would feel like lying to myself, lying to others.

       i don’t feel the need to reevaluate my past to fit with my current conception of self. Perhaps this is because i acknowledge that my current self is fluid. i am also very, very out. Because of that, i like to think that even if i weren’t as fluid as i currently am that I wouldn’t feel the need to selectively edit the past to ignore my transness. It’s too central to who i am now to hide like that.

       i also tend to think that by telling stories that don’t adhere to a trans-normative narrative i can work to, in a small but hopefully profound way, work to decenter that narrative and create more room for more narratives. Being true to my story is both being true to myself and true to my conception of the world i want to live in; one in which all stories are accepted on their own merit, without social preconceptions of what they mean and how they should be told.

       i want to acknowledge that there are concerns here. If a person was invested in living stealth, or in a situation where they were concerned about safety, or if that was their story, or whatever, maybe it would make sense to edit their history. i try not to judge other people’s decisions on stuff like this. i just know that for me, i was a boy. i’m not now, but i was.