I’ll not preface this essay with very much, only to say that it is a swan song for the last month and an interesting opportunity that I seized to neatly tie up and summarise my academic and- dare I say- personal journey over the course of the class. My final grade in the course was an A and so was my grade for this essay.
The question I’m answering here is, basically, what did I learn over the course of the last month and how did the readings challenge (or not challenge) me and the views I held when I walked in. My response is as follows:
I walked into the class having done a good half of the assigned reading and with a fair amount of foreground knowledge of both emancipatory politics in general and feminism specifically- both its virtues and its foibles- as well as already being familiar with concepts like intersectionality, epistemological or materials hierarchies, disability studies, pivoting the centre, and many others to boot. Yet I also knew I was going to learn something new, even if it could not be organised in the neat black and white text of printed readings, it would be there etched into my memory. The first thing I ultimately found in the course was a sense of arrival at a new plateau of my own awareness, a realisation of how far I had come and how far I might have to go. While I had already learned many of the basic ideas and issues the class had gone over, they were drawn into relief by the contributions of others to the course material and by the readings I had not studied before, or by re-reading old favourites with a fresh vision. But above all it was the sense that my story, as it were, had value and meaning. As I told the class, I am often leery of alluding to my male past and claiming it gives me some additional knowledge simply because I do not enjoy reminding people that I am a transgender person, and because I fear it undermines my stated gender identity, but I did it anyway because I felt inspired by readings like Gloria Anzaldua’s Letter to Third World Women which rekindled in me a sense of pride in who I was that I had forgotten. For so long I cursed the circumstances of my birth that I felt had made me fall short of the normative standard of ‘white cis woman’- now I embrace them as making me the woman I am. Not normative, but whole. True to herself. That truth is an enunciated one, one that came from speaking up. Several readings enabled me to do that and gave me the impetus to not only tell the class “Yes, I am a transsexual woman” but also that my past gave me insight into the nature of male privilege. I spoke more about my history as a man in front of more people than I ever had before. I put my shit on the paper, yes, but I also had to cast it to the air before eyes I could see looking back at me. A few of the readings helped to make that possible but it was also the context in which these readings were assigned and analysed that helped.
To name a few examples, deconstructing Judith Lorber’s Night to His Day provided me with a platform to criticise something I’d noticed almost a year earlier, which was the subtle cissexist bend of Professor Lorber’s writing. That was a positive assertion of my identity, not only because I was using my trans female experience as something worthwhile and as a site that could produce truth and knowledge, but also simply because I critiqued it on feminist grounds. I queered feminism and the opportunity to do in a setting that was not Internet-based was riveting and satisfying. I had long since read Judith Lorber’s piece, but what it did for me this time around was open up possibilities of active resistance wherein I could make plain my own ideas and my own experience. That was the experience that told me Judith Lorber’s analysis of gender construction as a process was fundamentally correct, the experience that told me I did exactly the same thing she did on the Subway (gendering babies based on subtle cues added by the parents), as well as the experience that told me in no uncertain terms that her misgendering of Billy Tipton and her flagrant appropriation of trans identities undercut the very point that she was making. Where she had attempted to show there was nothing inevitable about gender, she turned and around and resorted to a conveniently reified binary that took a hatchet to the positively asserted gender identities of the people she used to support her argument. It was one of the first of many things that reminded me of one very important thing: how I know what I know is valuable and meaningful. What’s more, it is not something meant to idle like a gilded trophy or curio on a coffee table, a static conversation piece. It is something that had to be deployed, had to be written, had to be spoken aloud.
To that end, Gloria Anzaldua, a writer I already admired, tipped the balance for me. I had long since taken up her charge to write. Writing is a huge part of who I am, my ideological and physical transition has been blogged and analysed by me in a wide variety of ways. I spoke of my experience and wove elegant tapestries with words that others might know where I stood. Like Paula Gunn Allen I seemed to say “Where I come from is like this.” I cannot speak of Ms. Anzaldua alone, however, because the power of what she said is only amplified by the chorus of women whose voices rose in unison with hers in This Bridge Called My Back. While there were no trans women in that anthology I nevertheless felt a deep and abiding connection with the women who wrote in it. As I often say, being trans is about complex relationships. These women spoke to a great many complicated relationships- with religion, with family, with their culture and the hegemonic culture, with sexuality, with feminism. All of these were issues I shared, and all of them were things that Gloria Anzaldua said must be committed to paper loudly and furiously, riding roughshod over those who would say- directly or tacitly- that what these complicated women had to say had no academic or literary value, or at best would be a ghettoised form of literature for idle curiosities and nothing more. What she did for me personally was to remind me powerfully that even though I was not part of certain privileged classes, my voice had value. Trans women in particular are rarely taken seriously. Cis men may (quietly) seek out our dancing, our sexuality, or stereotype us as savants of gender, while others may think of us as walking comedy routines and nothing more. What Gloria Anzaldua and several other writers impressed upon me was the idea that this was not my destiny. She is not alone in this, of course. Many trans women writers, from Julia Serano to Susan Stryker to Andrea James to Raewyn Connell made that clear to me as well. But Gloria Anzaldua was, unlike the aforementioned women, also a woman of colour who knew about where I came from as a Latina, not just as a woman of trans experience. I cannot overstate how much it meant to me to see writers talking about the Bronx, about the Spanish language, and their intimate experiences with life in a barrio or in a Latino family. Even those who were not Latino also spoke of experiences and tensions that mirrored my own. Unlike, say, Gloria Steinem, I felt as if I could talk to these women and they’d immediately know where I came from and why it mattered.
I had been reading Bridge before I even registered for the class, and thus the resonance of those powerful and radical words was already thrumming deep within me. What the readings and class added was a space in which I could engage in a new form of self-assertion. I had already been writing for anonymous internet readers, but class afforded me a space in which I could also use my experience to teach, and to take a firm stand against dominant cissexist ideas. Encountering Gloria Anzaldua in the readings was just fuel for an already brightly burning fire, I suppose. But I always kept her close to my heart when I spoke because I knew that like her I was refusing to be silenced, refusing to be pigeonholed, and refusing to comport my words to dominant standards of acceptable discourse. I might frame my radicalism and the essence of myself in academic terms- what she called esoteric bullshit- but I make no bones about the fact that that is what it is. It is who I am, writ passionately in florid prose. I would not erase myself and say that I could adequately talk about sex and gender without referencing my trans-ness. I would not silence myself and say that my unique personal history was not of great importance or was not elucidating.
In another way many of the readings were a walk down memory lane, revisiting my initial journey through feminist ideology and canon, and the rapid process of self-awakening it involved. Marilyn Frye’s Oppression was an early reading of mine that helped to shape my views about oppression as an interconnected system, and as something that was not confined to one problem or issue, but rather was found in how that problem was actually linked intimately to a web of unjust actions and impositions. Her birdcage metaphor long ago crystallised for me the perfect definition of confinement, wherein focusing on just one bar occasions incredulous thoughts about how such could confine anything, taking that needed long step back to apprehend the whole cage to which that bar is connected reveals the reason for being trapped. Sojourner Truth’s timeless Ain’t I a Woman? was as evocative to me now as it was when I first read it. Her words were a righteous injunction against the racism in the suffrage and abolitionist movements, but also provided such tireless muster to the countless women like myself who never want for occasions to remind others that we are indeed included under that generic term “woman.” My experiences are dismissed by those who wish to claim that I am not a woman, or at best some lesser form of woman whose identity is tolerated at the pleasure of those whose genders are too privileged to question. But Sojourner Truth always impelled me to ask her endlessly echoing question bluntly and insistently. As she eviscerated the white male supremacist stereotypes that had bound her, and took to task the women who were handmaidens of those ideals, she provided hope for women many generations after her. Resistance is always possible, she seems to say. My experiences do matter, she enjoins. This too had a formative influence on me and I smiled as I revisited it in concert with my classmates.
But there was also another shift that the readings drew into a very vibrant definition which was embodied in several readings like Professor Bonilla-Silva’s Colour Blind Racism and of course Angela Davis’ gripping Women, Race, and Class. I was very receptive to these readings because the groundwork had already been laid, so to speak, but what they did was to give voice to musings I had been having as well as ideas that were slowly beginning to coalesce in my mind. Angela Davis’ elegantly stated radicalism drove many points home for me such as how slavery was not just about race, how the myth of the black male rapist serviced sexist and racist systems, how the suffrage movement was a home to both radical revolutionaries and selfish conservatives, among many other things. What struck me one night as I was excitedly telling my mother all that I had learned from her about various tragic episodes in American history and how they related to white supremacy was her response to all of this. She told me with a smile that I never used to talk like that and that I would just as often criticise her for saying negative things about white people. It made me step back and realise that in my younger years, right up until fairly recently even, I had been a dutiful handmaiden for white privilege and adopting many of the very same vapid arguments that Eduardo Bonilla-Silva so deftly dissects with regards to “colour blindness.” My mother reminded me how much I had changed and joked that she had to get used to it. My reply to her seemed weave various ideas from class into its warp and weft. I told her that she was right and that I apologised for questioning her experiences in the past, and apologised for dismissing her experience and her life growing up as invalid or arbitrarily “in the past” and no longer relevant. I told her that above all her life taught her as much if not more than I was learning in class, and that what she knew and could summon from her memory had great value even if it was not signified with a piece of paper signed in calligraphy.
A note must also be spared for Michael Kimmel’s Masculinity as Homophobia whose simple and I would argue misleading title belies Kimmel’s more complex and interesting points, such as that masculinity is racialised as well as simply gendered and that homophobia is often part of attempts to ‘prove’ ones adherence to true manliness. Kimmel is much closer to the academic feminist mainstream whose writing is more ‘professional’ and geared towards a style that is (mostly) impersonal and attempting to present theory in a magisterial voice, and thus lacked the deep resonance that, say, Nellie Wong or Gloria Anzaldua could sing with. Nevertheless Kimmel does draw on a little experience (like the silly games he and other boys would play) to make his points about how masculinity is constructed in a complex series of oppositions, and he reminded me that my lived experience as a male in society is valuable too and shouldn’t undermine me. This is an element of my thinking that is definitely a work in progress but over the last three months or so I have begun to seriously ‘revisit’ manhood and particularly that which I was socialised to express and pretended to for many years. It is, in a way, part of a long term project in which I try to undo my internalised transphobia and make peace with who I was rather than simply adopt a scorched earth approach to the matter. I have read with eagerness progressive work and theory on manhood in society and while the reflection of myself in such was far dimmer and distant for various reasons, I still slowly (and am continuing, slowly) came to realise that I should think just as critically about who I was as I do about who I am, and to accept that as a valuable standpoint as well. I often point out that I do not claim the same standing as a cis or a trans man when it comes to manhood. Being a pre-transition trans woman is indeed its own subjective experience that I do not intend to overinclude in discussions of masculinity. But what Professor Kimmel’s piece reminded me of was the fact that I had a lived experience in the subject position of ‘young man’- even if it was forced, false, and unasked for, things happened and I experienced life through something approximating that subjectivity. This is not a small matter nor something I should ever overlook. Sorting out its meaning will likely take me to many more distant places than what Professor Kimmel explored but gender scholars like him who think analytically about manhood have helped me realise that I could do the same.
In many of these recollections of where the various readings took me I often make a point of saying that I already had some grounding in the material and in the ideas presented. Certainly this class has not radically changed my life. I and the people I love did that. What it did do, however, was provide a temporary but powerful focus in the midst of that transition. The class and the readings therein were part of a continual flow with no easily defined beginning or end. It would be easy to say that I was one way before I walked into class and another after the semester finished. But it would also be lazy, deeply inaccurate, and uninteresting I feel. At least in my own case since it is patently untrue. But these readings were, nevertheless, significant for me. At this phase of my journey through life, this class was something I needed to be a part of. Through the prior semester I had scrupulously kept silent about being trans, selectively stealthing while I was in all four of my classes because I feared losing the goodwill of teachers and students alike, and because I value being understood as a woman. This class was my opportunity to at last stand up and speak out. In many of the readings the contextualising that occurred in class also helped to bring them to life in a way that I did not quite experience in reading them alone in my room or on the train as I so often did in the past. Furthermore, I actually found myself reflected in some of the readings, old and new, which is always a unique and uniquely wonderful experience. Finding yourself in a reading is like seeing through a spyglass and apprehending your refracted face, knowing it for the first time; then you see past it and find the whole world magnified afresh. That was how I felt as I tore through This Bridge Called My Back, for sure. Talking about it in class somehow only made those voices louder and more insistent to me, a firm reminder to never forget Gloria Anzaldua’s words and to never stop writing. If there is one thing that the readings prompted me to do for various reasons- be it to boost their signals, to challenge or critique them, or to speak passionately about their effects on me- it is to put my shit on the paper.