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.