Contemplations on queerness, transness, and other Otherness.

Monday, April 30, 2012

inscribing contradiction: living in-between tranny and faggot

       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

a third thing, a resistant thing: cherishing myself in the face of transnormativity

       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.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

rejecting the violence of the mirror and disarming the violence of the world

       A few days ago i left my apartment with a friend of mine. We were going downstairs to have a cigarette. They were rather shocked that i didn’t lock my apartment door and asked me why not. i told them that i try not to live in fear. i’ve thought about and talked about this idea a lot, but this instance was cause for further reflection.

        For years, between periods of queerness, the biggest source of violence in my life was myself vis-a-vis the mirror. Frequently i would gaze into eyes that i knew to be my own and fail to recognize who/what i saw. i would get lost a convoluted time warp, losing hours to the mirror. i’d often ignore the mirror altogether, knowing full well that i wouldn’t find myself there at all, knowing that the experience would be sapping. On rare occasions i was able to find myself in the mirror, but i would spend my time wondering why i didn’t have the courage to live the way i felt i needed to.

       In moments i really wanted to transition, i would look into the mirror and hate and cry and hate. These were among my hardest moments. But for a long time i didn’t transition because i was terrified of the violence i would experience. i was afraid. i was afraid for good reason.  My gender transgression had been met with very real violence on many occasions.

       My method of avoiding that violence meant trying to live in my assigned gender. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes the basic act of looking in the mirror became an infinite well of loathing. This became increasingly, unbearably true, so i did what i felt i had to do to reject the violence of the mirror. i got on hormones. i learned to sew dresses. i bought eyeliner.
To go out into the world feeling comfortable in my current gender i had to learn to disarm the other type of violence. i put away my fear. This doesn’t mean that the possibility of violence in my life has disappeared, it hasn’t. i catch shit on the regular. There are uncertain moments in almost every trip out of my house.

       But i can’t carry that. i won’t carry that.

       For a while i tried to skirt the line between openness and fear-filled watchfulness. This allowed me to leave my house, but i was always hyper-vigilant, ever-worried about possible attackers. Chemical serum constantly dumped into my veins leaving me in a perpetual state of fight or flight. My muscles were always tense and ready to run. i grew incredibly tired and couldn’t get enough sleep. Skirting this line was not healthy.

       i also don’t think that this made me safer in any discernible way. i don’t believe that i could successfully thwart off an attacker… besides, i’m a pacifist. The only thing this strategy did was to limit my choices and trouble my soul.

       So i learned to notice moments of fear. i’d feel them as deeply as possible and i’d take a breath. i would consciously refuse to alter my gate, my gaze, my actions. i learned to live with my fear, keeping it beside me. Soon enough, it started to dwindle. It’s not completely gone, and might never be, but i get so many moments that aren’t laced with fear.

       This doesn’t mean that bad shit stopped happening to me. People still have adverse reactions to my queerness all day long. But these moments of being comfortable in myself and living without fear are an incredible blessing that i’ve cultivated for myself.

       This brings me back to my apartment door. Sure, i lock it when i’m inside. People perceive my transness. This includes those who live in my building, only one of whom i know personally and trust. i’m especially vigilant about this when other folks are in my apartment because i couldn’t live with myself if someone i love paid the price for transphobia that was intended for me.

       Disarming my fear hasn’t led me to open myself or others up to more moments of potential violence, simply to accept those that i cannot change. i have to accept them so that i can live as freely as possible. So, when i run out for a moment, i actively resist my fear. i shun it to the back of my mind. i kindle new neuro-pathways of trust and of willful disregard. i build my capacity to tolerate risk.

       To be comfortable in the world, i have to live with the possibility of violence. In fact, i acknowledge that it’s inevitable. But i need to go out in the world; i need to be out in the world. So i smile at my fear as i put makeup on my face. i willfully put it out of my mind and i leave my house.

Friday, April 6, 2012

a perfectly genderless being?

       While i was meditating last week i had a vision of myself as a perfectly genderless being. The vision had no image attached; it was simply an overwhelming feeling of myself made whole with my body. The vision matched the warmth of the rising sun on my face.  A flood of calm and acceptance washed over my consciousness. i sat and knew myself purely.

       The vision vanished as visions do, dissipating into the nethers of my mind. But the overwhelming sense of calm remained. When i stood i felt my feet more firmly than i have in a few weeks. i recognized that a lot of processing and growth had happened very quickly and i had been left feeling tired as a result.

       i had been feeling guilty for a few days for letting my productivity come to a standstill. How could i let myself rest with so much work to do? i acknowledged that rest was an important part of growth and forgave myself.

       But i’m left with a quandary, now that i’ve accepted this vision into my conscious mind. How do i reconcile my sense of being genderless with my knowledge of myself as trans*, as femme? How do i carry this genderless in a world that inscribes gender onto any and everything? Do i switch my pronouns again? (i’ve been thinking about this last one a lot and it warrants an independent post)

       Most acutely, i’m faced with the reality that things that are characterized as neutral in our society are actually perceived (semi-)covertly as masculinity. It is still incredibly important to me to not get read back into masculinity. Given the context of culture, anything that i do in regards to my presentation will inevitably be viewed through a gendered lens. And prior to this experience i had already learned to embrace a non-normative gender.

       Despite this increasing non-normativity i still see myself as femme. For a long time i’ve thought of femme in two distinct ways. The easiest to describe is femme presentation. This is easy for me to reconcile because i’ve already done the hard emotional work of breaking down my sense of femininity and recasting it as something that feels comfortable and good.

       The other place i locate femme is actually more of a social role than a form of gendered presentation. This social role, for me, relies on compassion, fierceness, community. These are things that i value both in relation to and independently of gender. Perhaps femme for me will weigh more heavily on this social definition, although at least for now the presentation fits too.

       i think that perhaps the best i can do, given that context, is to be more emboldened a gender-fucking, radically visible queerness. Maybe recognizing the impossibility of genderlessness in my life should lead me to interpret this meditation as a symbol of comfort in my non-normativity. A queerness that forces others to interpret me not necessarily as gender neutral, because true neutrality has been rendered implausible by culture, but as atypically gendered.

       So i’m coming back around to non-normativity with renewed strength and new perspective. i can be a site of resistance, of questioning, of pushing boundaries, of growth. My non-binary gender expression has started feeling affirming beyond its challenge to normative femininity. This moment was representative of yet another increasingly holistic and solid position in what feels like a progressive journey of deconstructing gendered categories and living more fluidly and comfortably.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

dissecting body essentialism; my trans* body and my hope

       In the past month or so i’ve dealt with a lot of moments of body essentialism. By this i don’t mean the kind where people are totally disrespectful of my gender or my trans* identity; saying i’m a boy because i was assigned so at birth. It’s something that’s ever so slightly more nuanced.

       i was at a Trans* conference a few weeks ago. One of the keynote speakers kept describing people as “male bodied,” and “female bodied.” Although several people visibly reacted to this, most people in the room seemed not to. When i called this out my opinions were mostly blown off, cast as hyper-radical and/or irrelevant. i’ve heard these essentialist terms used a few times since then and feel the need to respond.

       To call a MAAB trans* person’s body a “male body” or a FAAB trans* person’s body a “female body” explicitly disallows them the capacity to define their own experience and their own body. It’s obviously problematic in that it essentializes what male and female are.

       By casting bodies born with penises as “male bodies” and bodies born with vaginas as “female bodies,” this viewpoint takes mainstream biological perspectives as given truths and erases the lived experiences of folks who don’t identify in that way. This is a perspective that i have, sadly, come to expect from most of society, but to hear it from a keynote at a trans* conference was truly disheartening.

       Further, it naturalizes the idea that bodies fall into these two distinct categories. This thinking posits that a body is either a male body or a female body. There are no other options allowed and bodies are characterized as always being somehow the same as they were.

       i find this difficult, and not just because i don’t characterize my body as a male body. i find it difficult because i no longer characterize my body as a female body either. i have a trans* body. i don’t want my body to be read as a male body or as a female body. i explicitly want my body to be read as a non-male body and as a non-female body. i have altered my body by taking hormones. i’ve got tiny tits to match my broad shoulders and an ass on skinny hips. i have body hair that has become blonde, but is absolutely still present. i’ve got smooth, delicate skin wrapped around long bones.

       Taking steps to physically alter my body is one way in which my body is a trans* body. However, it is not the only way. My body is a trans* body because of how i carry it, because i swish when i walk and how i own my voice(s). Mostly though, my body is a trans* body because i claim it as a trans* body. This is how i relate to my body, and i do not want it to be seen as a cis body in any way.

       One of my friends recently referred to cis women as “bio-women.” This statement operates similarly. This statement characterizes some bodies as essentially women’s bodies, deeply ingrained and true. Rather than respecting the fact that anyone who identifies as a woman, who claims her body as a woman, as having a woman’s body, this phrase draws a line between types of bodies.

       In this instance, some bodies are “more biological” than others. All bodies are biological. All bodies are made up of living cells; all bodies require food, water, etc. In equating biology to cisness, my friend unintentionally naturalized cis bodies. This process of naturalization further casts trans* bodies as abnormal; it strips trans* folk of legitimacy in defining our bodies and our relationships to our bodies.

       This cartoon, has been bouncing all over the internet as of late. It states that “women are women, regardless of sex.” Although i appreciate the sentiment that “women are women” insofar as it places a primacy on identification over assignation, it still delineates between sex and gender.

       This bifurcation of sex and gender is all too common in both feminist and queer discourse. “Sex” is characterized as being located in some sort of biological truth of a body, while “gender” is cast as being about presentation and identification. This definition is simply… too simple.

       Again, this process naturalizes some bodies and reifies cisnormativity by allowing trans* bodies to be viewed as “incongruent” with genders. Although this way of perceiving oneself may be useful for some trans* folk, it is not for me and a lot of people that i know.

       But beyond its lack of universal use value, which is enough grounds for challenge, i find it most problematic in the way it operates culturally. Not only does this language normalize cis bodies, and in so doing implies that trans* bodies are somehow fake, it also normalizes a certain mode of trans* experience. This language is constructed in such a way that the only option for trans* folks is a crossing from one “natural”/binary body conception to (in this case) the other.

       Because of this type of logic, for example, i have been referred to as a “male bodied woman.” Even in periods of my life when i was more binary identified than i currently am this was unacceptable. It cast me as a woman, but didn’t allow me to claim my body. This capacity was reserved for a rigid medical model that does not respect self-determination.

       In all of this though, i am not without hope. Another friend of mine recently said something similar about someone with a “male body.” i gently asked him how he felt about the terminology. He said that he hadn’t really thought about it, and then listened to what i had to say. He understood, and throughout the rest of our conversation was more careful with his language. i see his language use being intrinsically linked to his consciousness, and i saw both shift. Growth seems possible when discourse is opened. This is my hope.

recognizing covert systems and disarming a racially charged haircut

       My hair clippers whirred in the hours between days. It was far too late to be up with my work schedule, but this hair cutting absolutely had to happen. The back of my neck and head began to feel free, to feel air passing over them, as thick chunks of brown hair intermittently fell into my sink.

       It was time. i was disarming my racially charged haircut. i’d reflected and decided to cut off my dread hawk. This process was long in coming and felt utterly cleansing. As my hair stopped pulling on my scalp i felt lighter. i was doing more than giving lip service to systems of racism, i had acknowledged that my actions had ramifications and was consciously moving into a more proactive position.

       Eight months ago i decided that normative femininity didn’t fit me, it still doesn’t. i stood in front of my mirror looking at my awkwardly shaggy, growing-out-phase hair. i thought out loud. “Why am i trying so hard to conform to beauty standards that feel like poison to me?”

       Having no answer to that question, i picked up a razor. i had other identities beside my trans* identity. My sense of coming up with a punk outlook seemed to be the perfect method to cultivate a new, non-poisonous femininity. i shaved the sides of my heads.

       At this point i didn’t even acknowledge the question of cultural appropriation. i’d dealt with it long ago, as a boy punk, and decided that cultures had always exchanged things. This line of thinking obviously ignores the fact that cultural exchange is, and has been, linked to systems of power, privilege, and oppression. Being good on issues of race is not something that punk culture is generally known for, and i’m definitely not proud of myself for having held this belief.

       But in the moment i felt good. i was rejecting a beauty standard; and a beauty standard exacerbated by the extremely high expectations of trans feminine folk to conform, no less. i felt free and beautiful and unique and like myself.

       i don’t know how i expected the world to respond. At that point i was less acutely aware of how even the smallest changes in presentation could shift moments of interaction. So, i was slightly dismayed when my floppy mohawk seemed to cause more people to read me as a boy than before.

       This was a problem. i was glad to have left behind a femininity that didn’t feel good to me, but wanted to be read as femme. i wanted to find a way to keep my mohawk, but to make it look good with straight bangs. My solution was anything but simple.

       i got a friend to help me dread the back half of my mohawk. So then i had a culturally appropriated haircut on top of a culturally appropriated haircut. Again, i was happy. i felt cute, and it had the desired effect of an increase in being read as femme while not conforming to beauty standards.

       This time i was not completely uncritical. i wondered about whether or not it was inappropriate, even racist to have this haircut. i became more conscious of my hair’s presence around people of color, especially those with dreadlocks. i wondered what they were thinking.

       This should have been enough for me to cut my hair, but it wasn’t. i felt like i was in a bind. As a trans femme there’s an exaggerated expectation to have long hair. Comments like “if you don’t want to get referred to as ‘he,’ then maybe you shouldn’t shave parts of your head,” are all too common. The reality of getting read more as a boy after cutting my hair was all too recent. Although i recognize this social logic as placing an undue burden on trans* people to present in specific ways to render their gender “clear” to others, often in ways that are not expected of cis folk (from what my cis friends have told me, they are rarely, if ever, questioned for their short hair), i still felt trapped.

       So i selfishly kept my haircut, despite my feelings of uncertainty. No one ever said anything, so i have no idea if i ever crossed paths with someone who was offended by it. i probably did.

       Then i went to a trans* conference where contours of privilege and power were incredibly stark. One particular moment stands out as relevant. A speaker who wasn’t from the states said the phrase “colored people” as opposed to “people of color.”

       It seemed clear to me that this was an honest issue either of translation or of a lack of cultural context. Obviously it was problematic, but it didn’t strike me as particularly vitriolic. But i don’t get hurt in a personal way by that phrase in the same way that i do by other epithets, so my opinion here doesn’t really matter. Someone did get really hurt and offended in that moment and said so.

       A pang. A realization. An obvious moment but a one that helped spark growth. i knew that people couldn’t always see one another’s intentions, and have made arguments for cautionary behavior on these grounds. And, although i’d been hurt in those types of moments, i don’t think that i’d fully internalized the incredible capacity for harm that those moments can carry for others as well.

       i resolved to interrogate my hair further when i returned home. i recognized it as a potential site of unintentional violence. Deep down i already knew the outcome. During my introspection and reading i came across the phrase, “Beingan anti-racist white person is counter-culture. Trying to present acounter-cultural image by appropriating other cultures is not.” It resonated strongly in my heart. It was the phrase i needed.

       i was still left in a quandary, i would have to shave. At that point, i was sure that’s what i would do, but was still terrified of being a trans femme with short hair. How much more shit would i have to put up with? Because i recognized that attitude, although based in a very real sense of oppression, as selfish in that it legitimated my cultural violence by positioning it as a response to my own oppression, i was able to come to embrace what i might experience as a necessary part of my cleansing process. This is not to say that i am or desired to be a martyr; just that i had to come to terms with the possibility that disarming my image may result in acute moments of gender oppression. But it was something i had to do.

       My remaining concern was that in shaving my head and leaving my bangs and side bits i’d be left with a Chelsea cut. This is a hairstyle that, in my experience, is often tied with skinhead culture. It would obviously not be productive to go from having a culturally appropriated haircut to having one that may call up images of racist violence. Again, i was concerned about how people would read this haircut, especially not knowing that it was the only option when cutting off my dreads.

       So, i made it a little longer on top than in back, essentially a flat-top with bangs. What i ended up with turned out to be a very cute, gender fucking haircut that may have had some reflexive impact on my gendered sense of self, but more on that in a future post. i felt free and beautiful and unique and like myself in a way that was much deeper than before. i had disarmed. The process itself felt cleansing, adding to a sense of beauty, this time an internal sense committed to justice and disarmament.

       Obviously people noticed that my hair changed. In all this introspection i’d been doing i hadn’t thought about how i’d handle the inevitable question of “why.” The first time it happened i made a snap decision, that to be true to my process i’d use it as a moment to discuss systems of oppression and my role in those systems. It would leave me vulnerable and open, but i hoped that my process would help those who asked to see that they too, were necessarily situated within larger structures of power and privilege that need to be interrogated and interrupted.

       Perhaps this snap decision was too lofty a goal, as people seemed to only be able to conceive of my hair as an individual decision that had no impact outside of my own happiness. Although it is true that it was an individual decision, it had a broader effect. Sartorial choices are political, no matter what they are. They exist within systems of power that are in many ways based in representations and narratives. Individual sartorial choices can work to either recast norms and expectations or interrupt them.

       People didn’t seem to understand that this could have an impact on others despite my best intentions. People didn’t seem to understand the significance of my disarmament. i had a haircut that normalized colonialism, that implied that i could pick and choose elements from any culture i desired. When i told folks that i didn’t want to do that, that i wanted to disarm it, they often had looks of confusion and said things like, “well, it’s your hair, do what you like.”

       This makes it apparent just how tacitly systems of representation operate. They operate without folks recognizing and, in this covert way, serve to reinforce and recast power and privilege. i want to continue to interrogate these systems throughout my life. i want to live as congruently as i can to my conception of a just society. This is a process that necessitates self-reflection and action. i want my existence itself to be work toward that society.

the violence that didn’t happen and the violence that did

Content disclaimer: This is about transphobic violence

       This story takes place in St. Louis several years ago. This story takes place in a sequence of lightning moments clouded by confusion and disbelief. This story dissipated into a protective mist inside a barrier in my heart immediately after it transpired. This story takes place every day of my life. This is a story i relive, one that’s been inscribed on my body and on my life. This story takes place in tears, in pain, but also in renewal and redefinition; it takes place in the space between confusion and clarity. This is a story i’ve told a thousand times and i’m sure i’ll tell it again.

       i wanted to die that weekend. i tried to die that weekend. Piss drunk with a belly full of tequila and sleeping under a waterfall. Dragged to safety by a friend. Dragged back into the dangerous world i was daring to escape. A glorious, epic escape, that i thought far superior to the death i’d seen flash before my eyes the day before. i’d escaped death and my immediate response was one of self-destruction.

       A group of friends, activists i did a lot of work with, were taking a vacation together in the Ozarks. We needed to decompress and to bond over something besides banner-painting and polemics. We needed to get out of Chicago. Several folks had left a day or two earlier than the group i was in. We’d stayed behind to wait for one of us to finish her work week.

       We drove down late at night, constellations flicking between bits of clouds. We smiled and laughed and told stories. We listened to a Moldy Peaches album on repeat until we were sick with happiness. i saw a sign pointing toward Cahokia.

       “Hey y’all,” i mused, “would you be interested in stopping there and waiting for sunrise at the mounds?”

       Nothing seemed like a better way to begin our adventure. So we pulled off the highway. We stopped to pick up some booze at a gas station. One of my friends was wearing a kefiyah, which lead to us befriending the Palestinian clerk. He was here working to send money back home, and was smitten by the idea that these four random travelers were in solidarity.

       After chatting for a while we left to search for a cheap hotel to spend the night in. We ended up at this dingy place that had thick glass walls between the lobby and service desk. We paid by the hour, it was that kind of place. We went into our room and were shocked to see a black light; i was more sheltered then than now.

       As we carried our jugs of alcohol inside the hotel phone began to ring. Everyone jumped. i answered. The person on the other end told me that i couldn’t bring three women into the room with me. Apparently that was against policy. We got our money back and left.

       We had nowhere else to go, but were too drunk to continue on to Arkansas. Besides, we wanted to see the sun rise at Cahokia. Being a group of activists, we weren’t easily deterred from our goals. We went back to the gas station and asked the clerk if we could hang out there. He was delighted and said yes.

       By this point it was maybe 130 in the morning. As we chatted further, a large man in a flannel shirt came in. His eyes were glassy from years of alcohol abuse. His body hulked forward toward the counter and he looked me up and down, befuddled at my presentation. The combination of a pink shock of hair and nail polish on my body clearly did not sit right with him.

       He growled from his belly. His eyes met mine as he said “We like steers here, not queers.”  I couldn’t help but laugh my ass off at his implication that bestiality was more socially acceptable in this locale than queerness. i didn’t recognize how terrifying the moment was at first. i didn’t link this moment to the violence i’d experienced in high school. i didn’t link it to all the people who’d thrown things at me from cars. i didn’t link it to a system of oppression and ignorance.

       A few hours later i was outside alone smoking a cigarette. i smiled brightly and felt refreshed in the cold air. i wasn’t on alert. i hadn’t learned to do that yet. A big truck rumbled into the station. There were two men inside. One was sleeping; the other was the same man who’d mocked me an hour earlier.

       The car stopped and the door flew open. The tendons in his arms bulged through his shirt in fury. He barreled around the front of the truck, his eyes always on mine. His expression was one of death. My death. Time slowed to a near halt. Each second dragged out into eons.

       i stood, unable to respond. My only thought was that this man was going to murder me because i was queer. i distinctly remember thinking that i’d be like Matt Shepard—at that point i didn’t have stories of other gender non-conforming or trans* folk dying to think of. i thought about how odd it was that this man decided, probably after several more drinks that he needed to return to the gas station with the purpose of murdering me. i thought about how much he must have brooded over that time. i wondered what his sleeping friend had said and if he’d waited for him to fall asleep.

       i stood. i brought my cigarette to my lips for the last time. Breathing deeply i readied myself. i’d like to say that my non-response was one of resistance but that would be a lie. It was a lack of capacity to respond, a lack of knowing how to respond. Even if i wanted to defend myself i couldn’t have, he was enormous and determined.

       His arms began to lift, tree trunks ready to descend on me. i couldn’t perceive what happened next because i was too struck, too much waiting to die. These moments came to me slowly over the next few minutes, drifting into my memory without fully integrating into my reality. i was still waiting to die.

       The clerk had come out and fought this man back into his truck. He’d screamed and yelled. He refused to let this man hurt me, perhaps out of pure goodness and perhaps out of the solidarity we’d built earlier. He told the man to drive away or he would call the police.

       The clerk came up to me and told me that the man had wanted to kill me because i was gay. Then he said, “You’re not even gay, are you?”

       My teeth chattered. My soul gasped. i didn’t know how to answer that question. i wasn’t gay. But i was queer. That man wanted to kill me because i didn’t conform to his idea of what a body assigned male at birth should look like. That man wanted to take me off the earth because i was queer.

       i said “No.” i lied to him. i didn’t want him to realize that he’d saved me under false pretenses and face more violence. i denied my truth to the person who saved me and immediately began to weep. i’d done violence to myself and the world by my silence.

       i lay down in the back seat of the car and cried desperately for what felt like hours. My friends had come out and sat with me. They kept asking what had happened, but i couldn’t find any words. i just wept.

       Eventually i told them a version of this story that started with the phrase “i lied.” i’m still not sure whether or not they fully understood what happened. Fuck, i’m not fully sure i understood what happened.

       i slept. i woke up convulsing in the back seat, my head on my friend’s lap. i was still crying, as if seamlessly throughout my slumber. Everything felt grey. Everything was covered in a mist. Nothing felt real. Nothing felt real for a long time after. We made it to Cahokia and saw the sun rise. It was the most beautiful sunrise of my life, if only because it almost didn’t happen. But i wasn’t in my body and didn’t really get to see it.

       We went to the Ozarks later that day and met the rest of our group. i don’t remember a lot of trip. i was so actively blocking out pain and experience that i wasn’t engaged in the moment. i know what happened, i have memories that i can see through thick glass, but i wasn’t present for them. i put up a front and pretended to be my normal happy self. My self-destructiveness wasn’t really noticed by my friends because i was already in a fairly destructive place after an incident of partner rape.

       i drank too much tequila and tried to sleep under a waterfall. Only retrospectively do i recognize this as self-destruction. A friend pulled me out so that i could breathe. Sputtering and reluctant, i lived.

       In the years since i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violence that didn’t happen and about the violence that did. i lived. But i did violence to myself by lying about my identity. Sure, maybe it was self-preservation that felt necessary in the moment. But it also felt, and still feels, like violence.

       This was one of several moments that made me decide not to continue my transition at that point. i decided that i couldn’t handle the violence i would experience. This, along with some other moments that happened around the same time caused me to choose the violence of hiding over the violence of being out.

       i grew a beard and shaved my head. i bought men’s jeans. Even as i grew to embrace this identity i recognized it as deliberately hiding. i knew that eventually i would have to deal with my gender again. Even as i created a gentle masculinity for myself, i was doing violence to my queerness.

       i remember the moment frequently. Transphobic statements often put me back in St. Louis, reliving those moments over and over. Other moments of violence (verbal or otherwise) are, for me, tied to this moment of violence. As i feel the violence again i wonder what impact it would have had on my life to tell the clerk the truth. i wonder if the violence of the sadness i feel about this lie could have been avoided.

       Now that i’m again living as queer i remember to be alert. Admittedly, i’ve gotten to a point where i work to consciously disarm this because i need to in order to exist in the world. But i remember that moment and other moments. The fear that these moments of violence have placed in my heart is violence itself.

       But through all this violence i have survived. i have been saved by others. i have struggled to persevere in moments when i was alone. i was saved and i initially felt guilty about this survival. Not everyone gets second chances. But i recognize my guilt as self-serving. I’ve learned to accept the risk of being myself. i’ve come through flames to get to where i am today and am thankful for my place on the Earth. i’ve chosen to put this second life to use; to cherish it, to use it to love and to resist, and to work to hopefully help others do the same.

shifting nouns, shifting ground

       Nouns are as complicated for me as pronouns. My relationship to identity monikers is both a site of confusion and a site of growth. When i decided to transition this time around, i thought of myself as a woman.

       My identity fell upon binary lines. i didn’t even really feel all that connected to the idea of being a trans woman. i was simply a woman, and began taking steps to align my body and presentation with that reality. This was a process that was simultaneously liberating and hindering.

       i grew my hair out, awkwardly at first. i started taking estrogen. i learned to sew fabulous dresses and wore them everywhere. i shaved my body hair. i wanted to be perceived as a woman, period. This never really happened.

       Some folks in my life saw me this way, but these folks were particularly gender conscious and were committed to allowing me to define myself. For them i am incredibly grateful. i was given some space for becoming. i was empowered by knowing that there were folks who took my word about who and what i was.

       But, most of society was not that gracious to me. Most of the time when i was out in the world i was not read as a woman. My partner at the time used language that divided me from other women, language that rings in my ears to this day. Gendered spaces were scary and sometimes prohibitive. i tried to hide other vectors of my identity that may interrupt other people’s ability to see me as a woman. When i looked in the mirror i did not see a face or a body that matched the socially constructed category of woman, and was filled with sadness and self-loathing. i was kept away from the category of womanhood.

       It was painful. i wanted my identity to be accepted without question. But it wasn’t. Questions from the outside transformed into poison in my heart. i became jealous of cis people that were comfortable in their genders.

       Somehow, and for this i consider myself truly blessed, i was able to recognize that this jealousy was only doing a disservice to me and that normative femininity felt like poison. i stood alone and looked in the mirror for hours. i’d started to transition in hopes of being able to recognize myself in the mirror. i still couldn’t.

       Tears streamed from my eyes, screams welled in my throat, my teeth grit. i reached for the nearest pair of scissors. i cut the sides of my hair short. i wanted to reclaim my identity as a punk, i wanted to feel comfortable. i thought this would make it even less likely for folks to see me as a woman, and it did.

       But in that moment, womanhood started to matter less to me. i was able to embrace myself as a trans woman. i didn’t need perfect makeup and tiny shoulders. My exclusion from the category of woman allowed me to truly be a trans woman. For me this moment was crucial.

       i was different than other folks and that was ok. Scratch that, it became beautiful. This difference was a point of resistance, a locus of self-creation in the face of culture’s attempts to normalize and assimilate. i began to redefine femininity on my own terms; i unearthed a femininity that did not feel to me like poison.

       Eventually, and because of this, i stopped describing myself as a trans woman altogether. The word felt odd to me, heavy, awkward, inhibiting. i began to use the term trans feminine to speak to a sense of directionality instead of a location. Again, i was blessed by my recognition that my gender was a shifting and flowing thing.

       Acknowledging this directionality as a sign that my gender did not exist in a void, essential independently of social forces, i looked at my gendered relationship to the world. i reflected on my values and my ideas for a role.

       i found the word femme. Femme for me means compassion, care, resilience, sureness of self, and a deep capacity to love in the face of all obstacles. Femme took the place that woman used to occupy. Only this word felt, and still feels, whole to me. Femme is comfortable. Femme is home.

       But this was not the end of my journey. Although i was a femme, i was still trans. But the recognition that for me femme and woman were separate allowed me to embrace a non-binary gender. i learned to embrace trans*, as a category that rendered my shift from my birth assigned gender visible without locking me into a normative conception of what transness should mean.

       This process of growth and change cultivated a capacity for growth and change. i learned to see myself as both a “she” and an “it.” i began to love the term creature, and still sparkle every time someone refers to me as such.

       i embraced the fact that i was a faggot. i felt it deep in my bones. This epithet that was hurled at me so often was true. i similarly came to embrace myself as a tranny. These points of reclamation were a breaking point at which i was able to perceive myself as beautiful and valuable in the face of normative claims that i am not.

       The term genderqueer was already something i’d been using to describe my non-binary identity, but it just recently began to feel like home too. This has been partly due to the blessing of knowing several other beautiful folks who claim that word, and seeing parallels to my own identity. They have helped me to grow and to become, yet again.

       i recently shaved off my dreadlocks out of a desire to disarm a problematic and racialized hairstyle (more on this later, i promise). i was initially incredibly concerned that people would perceive me more as male when i had short hair. But i had to disarm anyway, that was more important to me than holding onto a gender presentation.

       As the hair fell from the back of my head and the ever present tug on my scalp gave way, i began to feel air on my neck. i was immediately reminded of how comfortable short hair felt in boyhood, how much i liked rubbing a freshly shaved head and feeling clean and fresh. i was left with bangs and long bits on the side that make my hair look femme in front and boyishly cute in back.

       i looked in the mirror and not only recognized myself, i recognized my constant flux, the beauty in that flux, and the beginning of yet another catalyzation of gendered shift taking place. It took me a few hours to place exactly why this was, and then another word sprang to the fore of my brain: genderfuck. Again, this is a word that is rooted in resistance and challenge to normativity and strength in self-definition.

       i still want my identity to be accepted without question because, although it’s complex and fluid, it’s still valid. i am still the final say of who and what i am, even though i recognize that my gender is reflexive and interacts with the world around me. In this ongoing gender journey i will still question myself, and allow myself to change. i will collect and reject and redefine nouns, because that process allows me to grow and become.