Contemplations on queerness, transness, and other Otherness.

Monday, May 28, 2012

imagining myself a mannequin and doing different differently

       i was walking on the sidewalk in the oppressive Chicago heat. A friend and i were on our way to an art show, meaning our feet were padding through an “artsy”neighborhood. As usual, my femme self was window shopping. i caught myself glancing at outfits and wishing that i could wear them,  i noticed something about myself. i found myself wishing for fabulous outfits not out of a lack of appropriate funding, which is absolutely a factor, but from a place of fantasy that was all too familiar.
       When i was still living as a boy and dreaming of living in another gender, one of my more frequent diversions was walking alone through shopping districts and imagining myself a mannequin. i would stand tall and angular with an archetypal body shape draped in the most femme fabulous that store windows could offer.
       i would dreamily stare and sigh, salivating. i was  a child gazing at a puppy they know their parents won’t let them have. But the acute sting of feeling incapable of living a life that i wanted to live would become so much that i had no choice but to light a cigarette and walk away. i walked away from hundreds of store windows, thousands of dresses, before engaging my gender actively.
       Upon realizing that my current window gazing was, at least in that moment, manifesting in a similar way of fantasy, i turned to my friend and told them, “You know, at this point, i’m confident enough to walk in there, try on that dress, and fucking buy it. But i’m dreaming of it as if that were impossible. i wouldn’t even wear that, my desire is pure fantasy.” i realized i was picturing myself in a new life that would be accompanied by a stunning outfit.
       Was this just a moment of jetlag, a lingering tendency toward liberating fantasy? Are there parts of my psyche that still don’t believe that i’ve made it? Have i simply been shaped by capitalist media culture into imaging myself to be advertisements?
       i think that the answer to all of these questions is at least a small yes. There are often moments in my life that I will smile to myself, remembering what life used to be like, and welling with excitement and pride that I’ve come to a place of comfort. i, like many folks, have been affected and shaped by an industry insidiously engineered to push fashion. One of the ways that this industry functions is to inspire folks to superimpose themselves into images in an attempt to make them want to buy said images.
       But, in many ways, i think there was something else at work. Part of me thinks that longing to be is such a deeply engrained mode at this point that it will continue to lurch into my present. Obviously, part of what i mean by “longing to be” is “longing to be a woman,” but for me it is also “longing to be different.” The former is the more tangible, discernable, locus of my desire to transition. This is ironic, because i rarely, if ever at this point, identify as a woman. But i did pass from a place of default masculinity into one of extant femininity.
       This was an important part of my ongoing process, but it certainly wasn’t — and isn’t — the only part. i often want to be different. By this i mean both different from society and different than i am now. Social normativity often feels to me like a fistful of arsenic does to a stomach, i want to retch it up, viscerally knowing that if i don’t do it quickly enough, i will suffer an outlandish death and contaminate others. So i frequently strive to undermine the normativity i’ve internalized and labor to demarcate that difference.
       But existing outside society is often not enough for me. Change itself seems valuable, or at least the possibility of change. Throughout my life, changes in either identification or presentation have taught me much about myself and about the world. i’ve learned to understand multiple perspectives and angles, and i’ve learned to be agile and adaptable. i’ve embraced this perspective so much that I will sometimes alter my appearance somewhat merely to challenge myself or to uncover a hidden lesson in the world.
       When i imagine myself a mannequin, this is what i’m longing for. i’m longing for a new embodiment so that i can gain a new perspective and play in a new life. This is almost always complicated by the fact that i do, currently anyway, identify in and feel comfortable in certain ways. But this drive that’s been present throughout my life and my transition(s) is certainly nearby when i window shop.

reflecting on Against Me!: the tension between trans* and punk

Also posted at In Our Words
       i was planning on going out tonight, but things happened and i’m sitting at home thinking about Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! coming out. i’m shivering as i read and re-read the lyrics to the acoustic tune that’s getting passed around my social media universe. As Laura hammers away at her guitar she screams, “Your tells are so obvious.” The last syllables are dragged out in a way that would be familiar to any Against Me! fan.
       Upon hearing this, the first line of the song, i flinch with pain of memory at the same time that i weep with joy. The heartache in this song is more obvious to me than any tell. It’s a familiar pain that i know all too closely.
       i’m irate at the parts of the media who have not switched the pronouns they’re using to describe her; i’m disgusted by some of the comments people have made on blogs warning her that she may be making a mistake. These make me think of my own struggles with pronouns and a brother who still “hopes i’m doing what’s right for me.” But–and this is incredibly unfortunate–this is a fairly standard level of consciousness around trans* issues in our culture.
       Mostly i’m left thinking about the specific intersection of trans* and punk. Coming across a dialogue between Rolling Stone’s Andy Green and the person who did the story on Laura, Josh Eells reminds me of the most painful fact about punk culture in this humble trans* femme’s experience: the hyper-masculinity. Eells says, “i think the reason that a lot of people have been so surprised – at least from what I’ve seen over the last day – is that a lot of people saw the band as “masculine,” for lack of a better word. Their music is so aggressive and [her] voice was so deep and raw and all these things we associate with maleness. It seemed like a very male band.”
       People’s surprise aside, this is not just about folks’ perception of Against Me!, it’s endemic of the nature of punk culture. It’s a youth counterculture that celebrates things that are acculturated as male belongings. Things like aggression, technical musical skill, outspokenness, anger, etc. are all put on a pedestal within punk culture.
       This is not to say that non-males cannot embody these attributes. It is also not to imply that these are inherently bad attributes, especially as punk culture at least attempts to spin these around to lash out against an oppressive system. But these masculine standards produce a culture that is largely very hostile to femininity and to queerness.
       As Laura sings “You want them to see you like they see every other girl,” i am transported back in time. i’m hanging out at a friend’s house the day before the war started. The suburban kitchen is brightly lit and plastered with photographs of kids who are only dressed nice for a photo opportunity.
       i’m sitting at a table eating frozen strawberries with three young punk women. We’re all clad in ragged earth toned clothes covered in patches.  We’re discussing what we should paint on this banner we’re planning on draping over highway when our nation goes to war. This is one of my fondest punk memories. It’s also one of the only ones that felt totally congruent with my sense of self. It was a joyful, affirming, feminine space, where we were coming together to resist imperialism.
       i think of punk boys i knew in high school. Every time i smoked a cigarette, one of them would make a terrible joke about me “sucking on a fags butt.” Although i didn’t think that would be such a bad thing, i internalized their hostility. i learned to be quiet about my gendered feelings. If the punks i knew were this homophobic, i am terrified of what they would have done had i tried to come to terms with my trans* identity at that age.
       i pit these memories against a memory of a pit. i’m in a warehouse in Chicago watching Vitamin X play. Enormous young men wear spikes on the shoulders of their leather coats. They spin and stomp in circles and i can’t help but think that they are trying to hurt each other. i don’t voice this. i’ve learned that this punk community that i call my own is not receptive to my interpretation of pacifism. A young person gets picked up and his head gets smashed open on the concrete. The show only stops for a minute.
       Almost everyone in the pit and in the band reads as male. The walls are lined with young punk women, and me. i’m not a woman in this memory; i’m a grudgingly accepting man. This community, and i struggle with that word, is the only place i’d found that felt close to right. The intentional resistance, the politicization of everything, those were as important to me as gender. And i didn’t know any radical queers yet, so i thought i had to choose.
       i turned to drugs and alcohol. i hid behind my politics. i got disingenuously cocky so that i could “hold my own” with the other punks. i taught myself to set my guitar on fucking fire. i learned to conform to a set of gender standards that didn’t feel right… It’s feels strange to have learned this once as a child and then again as a young punk.
       In a lot of ways punk taught me to hide whom i was. At the same time, it taught me to organize, to resist in all moments, it taught me to value my voice, my difference, myself in the face of taunts and bullying. Punk gave me the tools that I would eventually need during my transition process. i couldn’t have dealt with the violence and harassment i faced as a trans* adult, had i not learned to cope with homophobic violence and harassment as a punk kid. i don’t think that i would have learned to see myself as beautiful had punk not taught me to value things that aren’t traditionally beautiful.
       At the same time, i no longer feel welcome in punk circles. So despite punk’s crucial role in teaching me the personal skills i needed to transition, i ultimately had to leave it behind. i think about Laura coming out. i think about how Eells characterized her band, and accidentally stumbled on a sad truth of much of punk culture.
       i want to be hopeful. i hope that Laura knows that she’s beautiful in every possible way, and i’m not just talking about how gorgeous she looks in that Rolling Stone photo. i hope she feels her fierceness and strength. i hope she finds happiness and fulfillment. i hope she knows that there’s at least one trans* femme punk out here who totally celebrates her and wishes her the best on this beautiful exciting road. Mostly though, i hope the punk community receives this as a moment of learning and growth. Because to me, when i boil down punk and when i boil down trans* i find the same base element, resistance.

Monday, May 7, 2012

it's not your body, but it's not really mine either

        "If you put on a wig you’d look like a tall, skinny girl,” he said.

        "If you put on a wig you’d look like a tall, skinny girl.” This phrase has been playing on a loop in my consciousness for four days. i was at work, talking with a coworker about drag. He was excited to be planning his first routine, and i was thrilled for him.

        One of my bosses chimed in, saying, “Don’t take this the wrong way,” and i should have walked away right then, “but i think elle should do drag.” Then he looked at me and added, “If you put on a wig you’d look like a tall, skinny girl.”

        At this point, i looked him in the eye and said “i’m walking away now, this is bullshit.”

        This was outrageously offensive for hopefully obvious reasons. His use of “if” placed my capacity to be a “tall, skinny girl” into a hypothetical category. i’m 6”1, and weigh about 130 pounds. Although tall and skinny are both relative, i’d say i probably fit into both categories. And because my workplace is not conducive to a non-binary option, i’m a girl there. But, apparently not to him.

       His adherence to normative beauty standards as essential to gender denied me access to a girl identity. My immediate reaction is to reject that. i want to reject the idea that i should have to meet any sort of litmus test to gain entry into any gender category. i want to cut my hair even shorter and embrace a binary identity. i want to rip down the walls of the category, leaving the bones of my fingers exposed and raw from the labor.

       i wanted to scream “THIS IS NOT YOUR BODY TO DEFINE.”

       A week ago i was thrilled about the process of embracing an in-between body as beautiful, mine. This moment made me want to recast my body as a girl body, beautiful, different, mine. It made me want to use my body, which is so often a battlefield as an implement of battle; it made me want to metamorphose my body into a pure challenge to normativity.

       But this moment also hurt. It ripped the flesh off of my chest and squeezed my heart until i couldn’t bear the pressure. Gasping and crying i also wanted to hide. i wanted my body to be a normative, cis girl body. In a flash i wanted to be 5”4’ and keep my weight. i wanted long hair and narrow shoulders.

       i wanted all these things that i’ve worked hard to let go of. Two and a half decades of society telling me how bodies should be is a lot of weight, but its weight i’d mostly learned to carry. i’d shifted it and learned to embrace, even genuinely love my trans* body. But all of that weight turned and snapped and fell down on top of me in an instant. It buried me back in a dark place that it took a long long time to dig myself out of.

       Simultaneously, this moment made me want to retreat from the category of girl altogether. It made me feel a sense of liberation. If i don’t fit into a gender box, so be it. i wanted to throw away this category into which i’d been denied access so many times. i wanted to walk away from it, leaving it to wither and die while i flourished in self determined grandeur.

       i tried to remember what it felt like to leave the doctor’s office last week. i’d wanted to claim my in-between body and went to strategize with my doctor. They embraced and celebrated this desire to claim genderqueer ground—i’m very privileged to have this doctor—but they told me that they didn’t know how to make that happen for sure.

       So, we decided to cut my estradiol in half and keep my anti-androgen, hoping for the best. i’d jumped at this opportunity to attempt something uncertain. Maintaining an andro body, claiming my corporeal reality as queer, was worth the uncertainty. The uncertainty even seemed alluring. Gender challenges have always, despite their hardships, helped me to grow and learn about myself.

       i had embarked on a new leg of my gender adventure. When i stepped out of the office onto the street i was elated. The phrase “My body is my own” repeated over and over in my head. A year ago i took steps to begin altering my body with hormones and it was an incredibly empowering and important decision.

       Last week i took steps to recognize that i liked the changes and was happy where i was. Somehow that decision, in that moment, felt more important. i was claiming a non-normative space, which helped me to know that it was truly mine, i was not just doing what i thought i had to in order to be a woman. i was claiming ground for myself and knew myself to be unique and beautiful.

       But my body is not my own, not entirely anyway. Internalization is a real thing in my life. i looked in the mirror last week, after the incident with my boss and wanted full bottom surgery for the first time in a long time. It was beyond a want. It was a need, and a need with an enormous sense of urgency.

       i don’t think that that moment, as hard as it was, was significant enough to make me want bottom surgery. But it did have incredible trenching power. It dug up a pit of body poison that i’d tried—mostly successfully—to bury.

       This digging has left things too muddy to see clearly. i don’t know what i really want for my body. i don’t know what i really feel as my identity. Theoretically, i think that i don’t “really” want or feel anything. But in moments it feels like those are true. Theoretically, i think that i’m a product of my society.

       i am not without agency. i can push myself to be new things, to resist oppression and normativity, but i am also pressured by society. i am also shaped. i am not gendered in a vacuum. i am a body with agency in a world of pressures. In this way, my body is not your body, but it’s not really mine either.