Lost in Trans-lation: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Part IV

So, it has been a while since a preface was put on one of these. I should provide some more background on what’s happening in class and what the environment is in which these essays are being written. First and foremost I should talk about the grades as well as what has been going on in class. A lot of my writing for class makes no bones about trans issues and what I will post today is quite blistering in that respect. My teacher also knows I’m a trans woman since I outed myself to him. What my writing and my commentary in class has done, much to my surprise, was prompt my professor to devote a couple of class days to transgender issues specifically, the first of which was this evening. It went quite well, I have to say. I also got the grade back for my first essay, which I will post tomorrow. It was an A. All the articles you’ve seen posted since Part I have received perfect scores (10 out 10 on the grading scale he uses for these journal entries) and this one was no exception- he actually thanked me for taking the time to write it.

This is all, in various ways, monumental. It means the world that in the very bastion of feminist theorising where once stood transphobic cis women who used their perches to rain fire down upon their sisters and brothers of trans experience that I am now so openly accepted and finding my trans perspective acknowledged, embraced, and graded highly. It also is quite telling that by speaking out, by refusing to be silent, my professor owned up to what he himself described as his privileged oversight of trans issues in the syllabus and bits of transphobia in some of the readings, which have already been explained at some length in this space and in the class itself. By speaking out, I made my voice heard and ensured that all of the other students were given more education on trans issues than they would’ve otherwise had. It’s a tiny step, but it’s still something from which I take a good deal of hope.

The class tonight was relatively good. I was more than a little disheartened when the professor had to write the names of two trans writers we were reading today (Jamison Green and Susan Stryker) with the respectively appropriate ‘he’ and ‘she’ pronouns beside them because people kept misgendering Mr. Green even as they seemed to agree with a lot of what he was saying. Nevertheless, when I came out to the class it appeared to be well received and a good discussion was had to which I unashamedly contributed. I had often spoken up about trans issues throughout the course (and many other things besides, I should hasten to add) but often from a third person perspective. Today I was able to say “I” and “we”- that was powerful and it felt good, it felt right.

It gave it a bit of a twisting dagger effect when I spoke of trans chasers who over idealised trans women as somehow more docile and submissive to male power than cis women, to which I said “and I often think ‘well, you haven’t met me, brother.’ ” I got a few smiles and laughs for that, and that was the power of the positive seizure of my identity as a trans woman in a public space.

So, that’s where things stand. Matters are going very well in class, both academically and socially. What follows is a piece whose fire was born directly of the readings it cites and is something whose boundaries fall far outside the walls of my classroom. It was a piece that surprised even me as I was writing as it carried me to many places I didn’t fully expect. It details one of the realisations I’ve had recently- that more than my gender has changed. My outlook and my politics have changed, quite powerfully and radically. From my transition came second thoughts about my culture and my place in it, what it meant to be Latina rather than Latino among so many other things. It’s a piece that I think fits in fairly well with my autobiographical entries and it charts an element of transition that most people don’t think of when they imagine a transsexual or transgender transition. Without further ado, here’s entry #4 of 5 in our ongoing series:

In No Turning Back this week Estelle Friedman explored women in art in broad strokes overviews that provided a good smattering of information on the subject, and she began with the seemingly unrelated issue of language in regards to sex and gender in society. Along with Laurel Richardson in her thoughtful essay “Gender Stereotypes in the English Language” it provides a formidable introduction to the subject of linguistic politics. We often understand language as being value neutral and simply reflective of the realities we are surrounded by. The points made by both Richardson and Freedman illustrate that language often reinforces cultural subordination and social stereotypes. The pseudogeneric “man” is perhaps the best example and is quickly used by both academics to buttress their arguments. The widespread idea, weakened now but still powerful, that both men and women can be presumed to be included under “mankind” and the generic “he” and “his” is illustrative of how men are still socially perceived to be the default sex, the unmodified human, whereas women must be specifically marked- whether it be through the use of suffixes or titles like Mrs. that construct the woman in relation to a man in her life, or in relation to men in general. The backlash against efforts to change this language as so much “political correctness” is evidence of the fact that in some quarters this language is still deeply cherished.

I feel Freedman deserves credit also for shining a light on the fact that linguistic questions are not just a preoccupation of western or white feminism, but have also long been understandable concerns of non English speakers with their own languages. One of the best parts of No Turning Back, I feel, is that Freedman does more than most of her contemporaries to at least introduce readers to feminism as it has been expressed globally, and by women of all races throughout the last two hundred years. Although her narrative on non-Americans feels like a “oh and these people did this too” at times, it feels much more expansive and insightful than most histories of feminism and definitely introduces even to experienced activists events and issues they may not have known about.

On the subject of elevating historically unheard voices, we turn now to Gloria Anzaldua’s powerful Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers, which in many ways I felt was speaking to a part of my soul that I had long suppressed. I’ve owned This Bridge Called My Back for a couple of months now and each reading feel as if it reawakens and reinvigorates something I had trained myself to suppress. I was once ashamed to be Puerto Rican and very much an apologist for white privilege. “White liberalism” was a concept I only began to understand in the last two years but it was something I had lived for many years before that. This is the backdrop to my very personal response to Speaking in Tongues and indeed much of Bridge as well. Many of the articles are united by a sense that has stalked me all my life, a sense of being caught between worlds and running between consciousnesses, a never ending struggle to reconcile different worlds I inhabit, and being the titular bridge that people use to understand others different from them. What it meant to be a writer and a thinker in the midst of that also preoccupies many of Bridge’s authors. I always found myself- and still find myself- struggling to hold together my academic bend and lived reality, doing everything I can to let the latter inform the former, rather than letting those from on high tell me how I should articulate my vision. That struggle is, in part, at the core of Anzaldua’s Tongues piece. For me I have tried to pull together the white milieux I have often inhabited with my Puerto Rican heritage, and the fact that I was socialised male with the reality that I was female, and all the myriad complexities of gender that come with simply being a trans woman. The battles great and small, the little daily negotiations, the stray hair on my wrist, the croak of my voice, the fear walking down the street. This is what fills my pen even as I write my most turgid academic prose, and when I read Gloria Anzaldua’s piece for the first time I felt like she was describing some of the conflicts I felt as I tried to do so. I do not want to sell out, to be la Vendida, I do not want to forget where I came from; indeed I put a grinding halt to my decade long effort to do so, not coincidentally after I came out and understood oppression for the first time.

As I read Tongues I found it suffused with the same passion and glorious rage that often guided each stroke of my own hand, each thrust of my finger on the keyboard, and my soul sang out once more as I felt acknowledged in reading this. She was talking to me, I thought. Here is, at last, a powerful, intellectual feminist activist who knew where I came from and could scold me for not taking more pride in it. Here is someone who knew the streets I walked down, who knew my abuela’s voice, my father’s abuse, who knew the symphony of a subway train, and the hot summers of the inner city. I had the same feeling when I read earlier pieces in this anthology, including “…And Even Fidel Can’t Change That!” by Aurora Levin Morales whose words still haunt me for how true they rang with me. She too was a precocious and intelligent Puerto Rican girl from the South Bronx who was all too keenly aware of the gossamer thin line between her and the many people around her who “didn’t make it”- who fell into poverty, drugs, and prison, who was keenly aware that luck saved her from that. Not her intellect or her skill, sheer good fortune at having a father who could access the middle class saved her. Morales made me confront the fact that I knew exactly the same thing, and I nearly  wept because I knew in my heart- knew beyond knowing- that it was true.

Anzaldua enjoins us… enjoined me… to reach inside and find that part of myself that I had buried, that had denied the fact that I was Latina, that even whispered to me in words dripping with temptation to use and abuse my passing privilege to forget I was a transsexual woman, to leave behind my brothers and sisters because I had a shot at power, at conditional privilege. I know now I would rather listen to her and the benefit of her hard won wisdom. She exhorts us to cast aside pseudo-objectivity, that ‘point of view from nowhere’ that Donna Haraway rightly identified as something that obscures reality and silences voices that do not conform to those who get to decide what objectivity actually is. Gloria Anzaldua does not just entreat us to consider an alternative, but openly cheers us on to embrace our deeper voices, our emotions, our passions, and above all our actual lives. She reclaims the lived life as a site of epistemology without equal for both Third World women and all marginalised peoples. In that oppression, she seems to say, we can find the strength to propel past its strictures and dare to raise our voices, dare to be heard, and dare above all to be real and true to ourselves as we speak.

Being trans is a lengthy and ongoing exercise in being true to one’s self. I came out as a woman in perhaps the ultimate exercise in doing so; it was a fundamental rejection of conformity, knowing all the challenges I would face and the immense privileges I would be conceding, I did it because truth to who I was mattered above all else. I know now, in no small part due to writers I admire like Gloria Anzaldua, that once that great act of magic is performed, there is no stopping it. It is a gale force storm you summon, whose wind changes everything you thought you knew. I had felt that all that would change when I came out was my gender. I didn’t know my writing would go with it. What fills my pen now, what makes the swirls appear on my page is something altogether different that Gloria Anzaldua pinned down perfectly in this piece. It is the accessing of a rich, powerful anger that arises from both experience and a potent, perspicuous sense of justice.

It is hard for me, if not impossible, to remain “objective” when speaking about Bridge and that is altogether fitting. This is what Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua wanted, I believe. That emotional reaction that can only come from a woman of colour seeing their faces shimmer in the reflection of their blood red words. Many of these authors spoke to me and identified parts of my soul that make up the woman I am. La mujer de color that I am now proud to say I am. They know my struggles with my words, with “unlearning the esoteric bullshit and pseudo-intellectualising” that I picked up from years of schooling and reading the New York Times. What I got from that was not that I should break up my often ponderous writing style, because that multisyllabic pattern is very much my own. I will always be the geeky woman. But I will no longer be simpering or an apologist. I will no longer deny myself the power and the fuel I need to write with potency and meaning. I embarked on that project long ago when I first came out, and the difference showed, the new self awareness showed. What I have written, the words that flew from my fingers, powered by Katherine-who-is-trans, by I who said from the beginning I would not be ashamed of being trans, has moved people to tears, has inspired them, has helped other trans women come out, has comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable…

That is power that makes known to me the visceral veracity behind Anzaldua’s words.  It was how I knew what she said was utterly true even as I read the words for the first time. I knew my strength came from taking power from the truth of my life, my self-knowledge, and my experience. Not from trying to regurgitate a cis-friendly, cis-centric perspective on my life. As I go forward I will try to relearn and recapture what I had denied myself of my Latina heritage, which will take more time. But coming out, I find, is a journey that never ends.

That is what I got from Speaking in Tongues. I hope I do Gloria’s spirit proud.

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