The Single-Story of Trans Experience

Yesterday’s post may prove to be a jumping off point for an exploration of how to tell my own story. It’s been on my mind since the events that led to me penning that piece and quite fortuitously when reading through Border House Blog I came across a link to one of the best TED talks I’ve seen in quite a long time. It’s worth taking the time to listen to this woman’s words.

What Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful lecture makes clear is a point that has relevance for many oppressed, marginalised, or othered communities. It is a powerful rebuttal to the insistence of the privileged that they wield no power. Oftentimes you find people writing the most baroque, intellectual arguments against the idea that power, as we often describe it when regarding Kyriarchy, even exists. Yet Ms. Adichie’s stories make one thing powerfully clear: a story itself contains power.

Is your story told? Are the stories of your people valued? Do people outside of your community hear those stories? Who tells the stories? How often? Why are they told? What’s in the stories? All of these questions have some measure of urgency for the trans community, I believe, and this lecture has sent me thinking about my own relation to this larger puzzle. Yesterday I spoke of the Progressive Coming Out Story, a liberal-leaning tale that is designed to be comforting and simplified for an audience that otherwise couldn’t relate to LGBTQ people. It seems that, for many of us, this is the single-story that Ms. Adichie warns us to avoid.

Too often, the stories trans people are allowed to tell are designed to fitted into that single-story, or the narrative, as I called it.

When I recently criticised radical feminists for their assault on the dignity of trans people, and trans women in particular, I made a point at the end that asserted they could not feel as they did if they truly knew us. I stated that transphobic ‘feminists’ seem to be working on stereotypes garnered from the media and funnelled into gender studies academic writing. It is a different sort of single-story that they’re working from: the myth of the trans woman as an invasive parody, or as a drag queen. This tale has reared its ugly head multiple times in the media down the decades and it’s as corrosive as ever. It is a story of trans women as seen through the cruel eyes of certain cis people.

Just as Ms. Adichie shared with us how John Locke looked at Africans and imaginatively saw people with their heads in their chests, so too have cis people looked at us from afar and seen only what they wanted to see, building a narrative on top of that grainy image that became a story none of us ever asked for.

We have been the victims of a single-story about trans people for far too long. Curiously, however, there is evidence of an evolution of that story. Among conservatives, radical feminists, and traditionalists their single-story is that of the illegitimate trans man or trans woman who is a caricature and a deceiver; among more liberal minded people, the Progressive Coming Out story takes precedence. The latter story at least no longer sees us as villains but it still does not reflect us. It’s only one story. To the extent that many of us relate to it, we know it’s only formed a part of our lives. Just one thread in a much larger and more vivid tapestry.

Yet too often, among liberals it seems to be the only story we’re encouraged to tell; it is the definitive story.

It isn’t that I don’t see a bit of myself in that narrative, it’s that I see only a bit of myself in that narrative. As Ms. Adichie said about certain stereotypes: it isn’t that they are untrue, it’s that they are incomplete. Too often people mistake such ideas as representing the totality of our experience, and the precious few bits of media that tried to get it right for us only ended up reinforcing those tropes and those stereotypes. Transamerica was the closest thing to a decent film about us that hit the big time, very, very relatively speaking. In real terms, it was a bad, almost offensive portrayal of trans people. Yet this is the ‘best’ there is.

In watching it with my mother I did see bits of myself and my own experience in it. But I also knew that large swathes of it were predicated on cis-centered or cis-friendly perspectives. The free use of terms like “genetic girl” to describe cis women were part of that. But the spine of the narrative was built on the Progressive Coming Out Story. Things were bad, then I came out, then I dealt with some bigots, then I got the surgery, and happily ever after!

Our lives are about more than transition. Even those parts of our lives that are directly related to our being trans are not all connected to the process of physical transition that so obsesses cis people. That’s another dimension of that single-story, by the way. The body. In both the conservative and liberal version of the single-story of trans people the body and its appearance, as well as its history, are central. The “change” and “transformation” are most profoundly marked by what surgeries we’ve had, what drugs we may have taken, and are considered central and essential. For many cis people I am “becoming a woman” as we speak because I’m still in the throes of physical transition. They don’t understand me as always having been a woman. Biographies of trans people that follow the format of “In 1970 Johnny was born and he did this in his teen years; then in 1990 she became Jane and she went on to induce nuclear fusion, she’s a real peach today” indulge in the same idea. The physical transition is the fulcrum on which gender rests, the dividing line between he/she or she/he.

My story, however, would hold that I’ve always been a woman. Transition is the process by which I discovered and began to seize that on my own terms. That includes changing my body. I don’t owe anyone an explanation of why my body is undergoing certain changes. If I say because it makes me feel right and true to myself, that ought to be enough. Being true to one’s self is part of that progressive narrative, of course. But it always felt incomplete to merely leave it at that, and at times I wonder if I ought to get my story out there to counteract the oppression of the single-stories that bear down on us every day.

There is no true single-story of trans people, no singular “transgender experience.” There are millions of stories of trans people, and they deserve to be heard.

The City of Cis

Cissexual Nuke

Endeavouring as ever to prove the veracity of the sentiment behind this journal’s title, reality dealt another interesting pinprick the other day. Apparently the trans-sphere exploded over a series of posts and comments made on Pam’s House Blend, a blog way more popular than this one and with more employees. This link is a very good place to start.

Another nuclear situation exploded in the blog-O’Sphere apropos us damn bitchy trans people and all our irritating talk about oppression and what not.

Apparently the terms “cissexual” and “cisgendered” are now offensive according to one professional gay man and Autumn Sandeen deigned to agree, fundamentally, with him and his ideological fellow-travelers in a very long blog post meant to rationalise the fundamentally fallacious idea- saying over and over that the term was “weaponised.” At first, I will admit, I wanted to empathise with her. But as I read her links and really absorbed the meaning behind her post, that was quickly replaced with the sort of solar plexus punch I wasn’t expecting from someone in the trans community.

Silly me.

As I absorbed what she was saying, I really began to take serious umbrage at it. She was handing away our ball to people who couldn’t care less about our struggle. Our verbal ball. The ball of equalising language. Sure, I’m straining a metaphor to death here, but it’s not even half the equal of Ms. Sandeen’s crime against language in this case. The terms cissexual and cisgendered are neutral terms used to (essentially) describe those who are not trans. There are complex exceptions but that’s just another reason we need these handy grey terms for any discussion about the issues trans people face. Why?

Well I’d sooner not say “normal people want to do x, y, and z” to me. That’s accepting a rather unpleasant first principle, that I am implicitly abnormal, and thus making it much harder for me to argue for my rights. Even the term ‘non-trans’ is a bit othering. Cis- terms level the playing field and decentre things in everyone’s favour.

The word is not meant to be insulting. Some folks didn’t get the memo, however.

“And one last wading into the deep:
For the record, I find cis- to be offensive. In general, I thought our community (I mean the whole LGBT rainbow here) uses terms that are acceptable to those being described. That is, we use the preferred gender of trans people, we call someone bi if they identify as bi, we don’t say tranny, etc.

So why is it okay for (some of) the trans community to call us cis-? If members of the trans community said “stop calling us trans, we find it offensive” would we here at PHB continue to say “trans”? I doubt it very much.

Why the lack of respect in the other direction?”

The problem with seductive arguments like this is precisely their succubus (or perhaps in this case, incubus)-like nature. They allure you with all of these other verbal sops to our dignity while fundamentally arguing to take back something that matters a great deal to us. A lexicon that allows us to fruitfully and fairly discuss our issues.

I wish I didn’t have to discuss oppression in my life or why it occurs. I wish I didn’t have to deal with the sort of nonsense that underlies crap like what I spoke about last time, the simple fact that by casting me as abnormal I cannot legally use the women’s bathroom in some places. But it’s there, and I do. I won’t stop using the terms cissexual and cisgendered to describe those who very often have the power, privilege, and authority to pretend I’m a paedophile or say that it’s “immoral” for me to change my passport’s gender marker.

This is all stuff Lane will never have to consider, and good on him. I don’t wish it on anyone. But you set me back a few unnecessary steps when you even try to redefine my language on terms that are favourable to your privilege. How would he feel if the Christian Right began a campaign to remove the term “heterosexual” from our discourse because they found it insulting? Would he simply roll over because a soccer mom from Missouri pleaded with him about how offensive it was to her? I somehow doubt it, don’t you?

If we divorce all these terms of their deepseated historical and political context and move to this wonderful, abstract plane of pure nothingness where only us and these words exist, maybe we can horsetrade and talk about offence on equal terms.

But look out the window, we’re not there, are we? We’re in a very real world where all of that context does matter and it does materially impact peoples’ lives. I have no authority to deny cis-people their rights, and my use of the term is heard by virtually no one except perhaps the people who read this blog which number 20 on a good day. I’m not wounding anyone with it, I’m not perpetuating a cycle of oppression with it, I’m not restraining people from living their lives as human beings because of it. As my good friend at Femmessay put it, even if I did say something meanspirited about cis people, it has no teeth whatsoever.

If I did happen to angrily declare Raaar, all cis people should be put to death. Fuck yo vagina! that’d be pretty hateful, stupid, and, yes, offensive. Because it’s a complete thought. Not, however, because of the term cis. I could’ve easily replaced that word with ‘brown haired people’ or ‘Sephardic Jews’ or ‘Blink 182 fans’ and the sentiment would’ve still been the same. The adjective, the descriptors, were not the offenders. The complete thought (putting them to death) is.

Yet even with those words, stinging as they are, hurt feelings are all people like Lane will ever have to grapple with in that department. When I feel the reverse, if someone were to say “all trans people should be put to death” I know that it’s not just hurt feelings I have to deal with. I have to also confront the reality that this sentiment is why I am legally restrained from adopting children, altering my birth certificate or social security info, why I can’t get certain jobs or live in certain parts of the country, why I might be restrained from even using the bathroom of my choice, why I might be regarded as a perv, or a paedo, or a freak, or a sin against nature. All of that is rolled up into those barbs. Whereas… what exactly is rolled up into “cis” other than its default, neutral, academic meaning? What does the occasional angry, thrashing insult of a trans person who might use that term in a rant do to ruin a cis person’s life, exactly?

What’s astounding about this post is that I feel like I’m giving a basic grammar lesson here, but it demonstrates how far behind trans people are in so many areas that even this can be easily denied to us when it suits the privilege of others. I’m having none of it. I will not abandon my use of these terms so callously and so easily as this:

To begin with, I’m giving up on the words cissexual and cisgender. I saw these as neutral terms, and now I see these are not. Thank you for your reasoned explanation as to why.And yeah, civil tone matters, and thinking in terms of broad communities matter. I see these as being more and more as important as time goes on.

One more MLK Jr. quote:

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars… Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

For Ms. Sandeen to justify her betrayal with the words of Martin Luther King is even more stinging and unnecessary- and just a little ironic. Does she not seem to remember the fact that his speeches had to make mention of “white people” in ways both entreating and shaming? She might as well be saying that the words “White,” “Christian,” “Heterosexual,” or what have you are weaponised. That the onus of guilt is placed on us for merely using a term that academics responsibly use all the time to have a language to describe the various issues the trans community faces… that is irritating. For a transgendered person to do so is unconscionable.

Perhaps she thought she was doing it out of some misguided sense of fairness, perhaps she thought she was saying something meaningful, but what she did was give our ball away to the wrong people. To anyone who might be inclined to be as “accommodating” as Ms. Sandeen to those who really don’t care for us to begin with, let me quote George Carlin here:

“They don’t give a fuck about you. They don’t give a fuck about you! They don’t care about you! At all. At all. At all!”

I am not giving back the cis words. Language does belong to us all, which is precisely the same reason you cannot take it from me, and I will continue to use this terminology to assist me in talking about what matters when it’s relevant, as opposed to whatever appeasing constructions Ms. Sandeen decides to put together to please those who barely regard her existence. Because what she doesn’t seem to get is that it doesn’t matter whether you call them cissexual or zootsexual or zooblehsexual or wagga-waggasexual, the whole point is that some are miffed that language is putting them on an equal footing with us freaks. It’s not the word, it’s the idea that we’re in equal consideration that gets under these peoples’ skin.

If I am to be labeled an “angry bitch” for it, then so be it. I’ve cause to be angry. If it makes you uncomfortable, help do something about it, rather than blame me. For Ms. Sandeen to do this seems, to me, to forget the sacrifices made by trans people in the past, to claw ourselves the tiny bit of dirt we have today, like the fact that I can legally change my DMV ID’s gender without having had surgery. That tiny bit of dirt there? People died for that. Were raped for it. Had their killers and rapists go free because of it.

The cis terms are another clutch of soil that our bloodied hands have claimed for ourselves; the right to have de-centering language so we can talk about this stuff equitably.

If you think this is melodramatic, then look at the history of trans people, how hard won some of these rights are, just as the rights of other out-groups were clawed inch by bloody inch. I doubt Ms. Sandeen was thinking of this, and I know for certain that Lane and his set certainly gave not a thought to this, merely mouthing the words of tolerance to get to a fundamentally bigoted point: that he had no privilege to examine or consider.

Which is, of course, a privileged way of thinking. So, what do I want? Well, I’ll let Femmessay explicate:

“The point is not to give the gun over to the oppressed person — and it isn’t as though that could ever happen in any universe that doesn’t exist in your own head, and every transperson knows that, just like women know that we’ll never have a matriarchy — the point is to get rid of the guns. The prefix “cis” is one tiny step in the epically difficult process of removing the bullets from the cisprivileged gun.  It is not being loaded into their own gun — they don’t have one! — it is being thrown away in the hopes that maybe one day we can all sit at the table together and enjoy our relationships without the unspoken threats sitting between us.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

I do not wish to hurt or offend cis-people. I’m just trying to get my rights and be respected as just enough of a human being to, you know, use the bathroom without being considered a perv. Without having everything I do, even my most intimate and private moments, second guessed in a way no one else has to contend with.

For example, if you are a cis-woman and you, say, enjoy kinky sex, there might be a slight stigma attached to that in certain circles but no one questions your womanhood. If you like sexy underwear, that will not be questioned, and will in some cases be encouraged. If you like having dirty words hurled at you during sex, that’s just considered a kink. But if you’re a trans woman, suddenly you’re a male pervert for wanting all or any of those things and fetishising your womanhood.

When something that private, personal, and intimate is questioned and held aloft as proof of my non-personhood, something is terribly wrong in this society, and if I can’t say that that comes from cis privilege, then something is really wrong.

Because understanding that hurt isn’t easy, and it has to begin with language. Language is the concrete poured into oppression’s foundation. Eliminating it also begins with our tongues. I, for one, will not stop.

Neither should you, my brothers and sisters.

Invisible Woman

“This is a bill that begins to confuse the gender differences between men and women to the point of trying to allow men to use women’s restrooms, and, of course, that means sexual predators going after young children,” Tom Minnery, senior vice president of public policy at Focus on the Family Action, said… (Source.)

There are things that words often fail to describe adequately. My reaction to the above quote was one of those things. But I will take a good stab at explaining why this is wrong using my usual flawless logic.

First of all, the onus is on the Christian fundamentalists to demonstrate using anything other than tautological bullshit that gender-identity discrimination protection empowers sex offenders. I like to think of myself as a fair minded woman, willing to walk in another person’s shoes for a while (they’re probably less painful than heels for sure). But for the life of me, looking through the eyes of these Christian radicals I still can’t see what they see apropos paedophila. All I see is that they’re scared of me.

Again we return to the nuclear unicorn thing. I am again being portrayed as this deadly weapon that is an unmitigated threat to society, restrained only by a lack of laws recognising my dignity.

To address this directly, we all know that tragically women and children have been raped or assaulted in restrooms. Yet that’s exactly the point, the absence of pro-trans legislation hasn’t in any way restrained these monsters. If such legislation exists, exactly what loophole can they exploit to do something they’re legally unable to do now? If a man walks into a women’s bathroom and starts leering and groping, he’ll get arrested. Why? For sexual assault. This bill is not decriminalising rape, assault, or sexual harassment. It only ensures that I’m not discriminated at work because I’m a trans woman and that I can use the bathroom of my choice.

Why does this matter, asks the ignorant Christian rightist? Well this may shock you, quite a bit, so prepare to have your mind blown. I use the restroom to relieve myself. I go in there to pee and if I’m really desperate, take the occasional dump. I do not go in there to draw pentagrams on the floor in goat blood and sacrifice babies to our lord Beelzebub while groping various asses that may come my way.

This is quintessential othering. Here’s one more thought exercise: if they’re so concerned about sexual assault, why would they send me- a woman- who is dressed like a woman, looks like a woman, sounds like a woman, into a men’s bathroom? They’re not worried about the catcalling, questioning, groping or leering I might experience? But of course, this isn’t about protecting women or children, and as ever it is a mere smokescreen of incredibly acrid bullshit meant to make people hate us. Yesterday I said that as we are de-voiced we are tragically made all things to all people. Well, you can add ‘paedophile’ to the list of things Christians insist on believing about us.

The fact that it never occurs to these people that I might just want to use the bathroom to pee and wash my hands tells you how deeply ingrained their sense of us as this evil alien species is, and of course they view gays and lesbians in much the same way.

Logically speaking such laws do nothing to help sex offenders. This argument has been trotted out countless times and every time so-called liberal lawmakers do not get up to bat and beat this down; we’re just trannies, why risk their careers on us? But it’s a monumentally stupid and offensive argument. In New York City we have an ordinance that allows trans people to use the sex-segregated facilities of their choice. That’s brilliant. You may also have noticed no commensurate increase in bathroom rape here. That’s because no one can reasonably use those laws to get out of an assault charge. Why? Because the law isn’t about assault.

It’s about allowing me to use the restroom and dispose of my bodily waste.

But really it’s starting to get very tiring to hear these conservative arguments on an academic level just because they’re so old and repetitive. Really, what’s next?

“This is a bill that begins to undermine American energy independence by charging so-called polluters for their waste, and, of course, that means sexual predators going after young children.”

Or:

“This is a bill that will allow poor families to access healthcare for the first time and prevent people from being denied coverage, and, of course, that means sexual predators going after young children.”

Come up with something new, guys, seriously. Also, word of advice: Don’t talk about “the children” until you stop opposing things that actually help kids like Head Start and CHIP.

This particular brand of hate meshes very well with that of the malevolent forces in the psychiatric establishment who work tirelessly against the liberties of trans people by attempting to categorise us as disordered. Recently I took this piss out of Kenneth Zucker, the lead doctor at Toronto’s infamous Clarke Institute in Toronto, part of the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and with good reason. This man embodies the precise threat of transmisogyny to not just trans women, but women as a whole.

Dr. Zucker, seen here trying to melt his arch nemesis, Barbie, with his mind.
Dr. Zucker, seen here trying to melt his arch nemesis, Barbie, with his mind.

He is a staunch proponent of the idea that “men wanting to be women” are psychiatrically injured and need to be ‘cured’ of this malignancy. Time and time again trans women are at best aggressively questioned and at worst aggressively beaten for ‘wanting to be women’ because, as most men would wonder, why on Earth would anyone want to be a woman? They’re so… frilly and inferior.

Women as a whole must recognise this and take umbrage at it.

Furthermore it’s worth noting that he also enables a particularly stupid argument that a small minority of gay men love to indulge: “Failure to intervene increases the chances of transsexualism in adulthood, which Zucker considers a bad outcome. … Why put boys at risk for this when they can become gay men happy to be men?” This was written by J. Michael Bailey, a fellow traveler of Zucker’s who cannot believe that I am happy and empowered by being a woman despite the downstairs mixup.

But the point is, folks, I’m a lesbian. I’ll defend the rights of gay men to the death, but I’m not one of them. I’m part of the GLBT movement we all share, yes. But I am not a gay man. I’m a lesbian (trans)woman. That’s just how my cards fell. What does Zucker say to that? I should also add that I’m a very broad minded woman. It took a lot of introspection to get to where I am now and most important of all, self acceptance. Given everything that trans people have to endure and the stigmas we carry (see: what started this article) I cannot fathom that any real person who has gotten to this point is suppressing gay-ness to do something that is monumentally harder, more expensive, and more inviting of trouble on one’s house.

In short, if I truly was gay, and assuming all else about my mind and personality were equal, I’d have had no trouble accepting it.

I’m a woman and it’s as simple as that.

Why should I be ashamed of that or need to be cured of it? Why must I and my experience be made invisible because of it? That’s a worthwhile question for all women to consider.

The Trans-feminine Mystique

When I first began writing this journal/blog thingy I wondered in my very first post if I should come out or not; if I should restrain myself from letting that little dirty secret slip into a Google-searchable journal. In the end I realised something rather important, so I just said “fuck it” and wrote that into the very first post. I knew I couldn’t hold that back. It’s in the DNA of this journal’s name, as the first post explained.

But what I also realised is that there are still so precious few outlets for trans people to get the message out there. There are certainly more than ever. The Internet has been a remarkable help in this regard. Many books are now on the shelves that are autobiographical, political or both, and that’s a wonderful thing. Yet even so, none of us can name a really good movie that portrayed a trans person sympathetically, seriously, and non-stereotypically, much less a TV show.

We are shown as crude caricatures, or with our high heeled legs pointing up out of a dumpster, or as cruel temptresses who will defile unwitting young men with our secret sausage. Trans women are those crude and cruel mockeries, trans men don’t even exist at all in the media, save for the needed telling of some tragic tales like that of Brandon Teena. But beyond those sad true life stories, we do not hear much about trans men or trans women- certainly not the triumphs of our every day lives, nor do we see any beautiful pictures painted on screen depicting the realisation of our simple dreams.

Transamerica came closest but even that film, despite having had several trans women consultants like Andrea James whose life story would make a damn fine movie on its own, blew chunks in its portrayal of us. Felicity Huffman’s character was portrayed as a hyper feminine almost wanna-be character that stumbled in her high heels. That’s bollocks, for one thing. You adapt to high heels pretty quickly. Her character is years into transition and that stumbling does little more than assist the audience in not taking her seriously as a woman; as if to say walking in heels is some arcane art of women that cannot be imitated by trans women because of their knobbly bits.

There are countless moments like this, such as the portrayal of her putting on her makeup and spending a tremendous amount of time ‘putting woman on’ which reinforces the idea that she has to put on a costume and deceive. Unlike an actual woman, is the implicit message, intended or not. This belies the countless stories of real trans women who roll out of bed in a tank top and jeans and get groceries in the morning without spending two hours putting on makeup.

What was particularly annoying about this portrayal was that it tapped straight into a deeply othering meme that infects the wider media. Showing trans women spending lots of time putting on makeup. Even in sympathetic news or talk show outlets that have shown positive stories about us, like Oprah or Vermont’s CBS affiliate, there’s always that money shot of the trans woman putting on makeup. It reinforces this asinine idea that our womanhood is artificial and revolves around the rituals of cosmetics and wigs and stuffing our clothes in the right places. The idea becomes very much implicit in all of this: we’d not be women but for that artifice.

This is insulting to trans women and it’s insulting to women as a whole. I am taken seriously as a woman despite not wearing much in the way of makeup. The most I ever use is a little lipstick because I happen to like what it does to my face. That’s not a crime. But I sure as hell don’t spend hours in front of the mirror using layers of foundation to “make myself a woman.”

In an earlier entry I remarked that trans people were an excruciatingly de-voiced group. These examples highlight the consequences of this. When the powers that be deign to cover us or give us a very filtered voice, it must always be channelled through the filter of their own definitions and biases. This has profound consequences and also explains a particular aspect of what I might call a little ironically The Transsexual Mystique: the fact that we’re all things to all people.

To Christians, Muslims, and other religious conservatives we are sins against nature whose very existence flies in the face of God. To liberals we are diversity chits to showcase their tolerance but not to be taken too seriously as ‘actual’ men and women. To macho, patriarchal men, we are incredibly gay sissy guys who need a beatdown and also a place for them to project their worst misogynist fantasies. To some feminist women, we’re sleeper agents of the patriarchy itself, men in drag who denigrate womanhood by being parodies of it. To psychiatrists we are their social experiment and a place to project their personal ideals so that we might be moulded into them. To some gays we’re merely deeply closeted gays and lesbians unable to grapple with our own latent homosexuality.

You may note that many of these stereotypes are trans woman-specific. This is because trans men are thinly regarded at all by society in this. Their existence puts lie to some of those stereotypes and is thus inconvenient.

The only way this happens is because who we really are isn’t part of the narrative. They know we exist as transsexual people but they don’t know what to make of us. So they project their fears, worries, and fantasies onto us. We are blank slates on which they may write their values, and in so doing they merely rationalise us into some role that buttresses their worldview. Because we sure as hell aren’t being allowed to do it. So few of us can stand up and say “this is my life, I’m a human being and here’s my experience…” So we simply become MacGuffins for everyone else’s political ballgames.

When we are allowed to speak, we always have our words edited by the demands of commercial media and parsed by psychiatrists who allegedly know us better than we know ourselves. Our experience is forever qualified by the desires of others.

So I’m telling this story. My story, and my observations. I don’t pretend it applies universally, but it’s part of the true tapestry of the lives of all trans people. What can be done to fix and redress the media portrayal problems? A good place to start looking and see what the future might look like is Venus Envy, a webcomic by Erin Lindsey that deals with the lives of trans people in a small Pennsylvania town. It can be a little soap opera-ish, but what matters most is that I identified with the main character, Zoe.

She wasn’t a caricature, she wasn’t a cardboard cut out, and she wasn’t comic relief. She was a fictional character who was going through what I went through with the same thoughts, worries, fears, hopes, and some experiences that I had. It matters so very much to see and I ate that comic up, finding hope in Ms. Lindsey’s excellent and heartfelt storyweaving.

One of the other main characters is a trans man as well, and their issues are handled so deftly and expertly that I never felt condescended to. I just felt like this was a reflection of my experience. Trans people as a whole were being taken seriously in this artwork. Lindsey knows how to make us laugh about our own foibles and some of her earlier comics make great play of that. But the joke is not on us, it’s on the absurdity of the situations society leaves us in. That is a critical distinction.

This is why I get so annoyed at people who decry “affirmative action” on television and in films, like some morons at the University of Connecticut’s Young Republican club who actually denigrated Star Trek: Voyager for being such a thing. To hell with you. There is a very distinct power to seeing a reflection of yourself in the media. It makes you feel like you’re part of the society and that your stories and experiences matter enough to be reflected into the general public. I can empathise with white characters and with cis-women characters, and even the odd male character. But it makes my heart sing with I see a trans woman I can truly identify with.

Because the trans part of my womanhood is a very specific and very involved set of experiences that are not easily replicated in other demographic groups. Zoe Carter as a character matters a lot to me because of that. Erin Lindsey truly Gets It. It’s no surprise then that she’s trans herself. But we all need to tell our stories, and in her way this is how she tells hers.

I also added a link to the blog roll to Lady Jade Lioness’ Den, a good friend who is writing a wonderful piece of erotic fiction starring a trans woman who, aside from being elegant, strong, and intelligent, can kick some serious ass and knows how to use a pair of daggers to deadly effect. In a word, a badass I can empathise with. It matters to have those sorts of heroes and see them portrayed positively and sympathetically.

It matters not just because we need to feel less alone or because seeing ourselves reflected positively is empowering. It is also because we need to stop being all things to all people and instead be ourselves.

Sex: F. Love, The State

There’s a stinging duality to validation-by-document.

If only it were that easy.
If only it were that easy.

On the one hand, when I hold a letter from my doctor, or a state ID that affirms I am female and has my proper, womanly name in all its glory, I feel empowered. I feel alive. I feel validated. I was taken seriously enough for those official categories of consideration to be changed, for the State to smile on me in its own strange, distant way and favour me with the constructs of a ‘legal name’ and ‘ID’ that act as the keys to getting me seen in society as I want to be seen. That doctor’s letter affirmed that I was indeed gender dysphoric, that I was truly a woman whose ‘psychological gender predominated over her physical/birth gender.” Those affirmations made my heart sing.

They also make it sink sometimes.

Because I know that I should never need any of those things to ‘prove’ myself to anyone ever. I remember how I held up the Greatest Doctor’s Note Ever to my father and told him “See?” Yet simultaneously I felt hurt that he needed to see something like that before he even began to consider what I was telling him about who I really am. That it took someone affixing their meandering signature to a form letter who happened to have the letters M and D after his name to get my father to think ‘this might be real.’

It’s a problem a lot of trans people experience- the fact that our word has never been good enough to anyone. Every out-group has a problem with elites speaking for them. But few out-groups are as truly de-voiced as trans people. It is truly rare that you see one of us on television, or openly writing in a newspaper, telling the world about our experiences. Telling the world who we are. Telling the world why.

There are, mercifully, more and more books written by trans men and trans women alike breaching major publishing thresholds, but there is still so much more work to be done.

It lies in the fact that so very often we’re forced to rely on men in white coats to validate us and our existence. To stand beside us and say “In my considered opinion as a professional, this person is telling the truth about her whole life and experience that I have had but the faintest and most tangential glimpse into.” Ever implicit in this is of course the idea that they know us better than we know ourselves, and I have always loathed this. It took years of introspection to get the certainty and courage I needed to come out, as well as meeting a very unlikely person (If ya’ll are nice I might tell you that story someday). It constantly gives the broader public the impression that we need to be spoken for and diagnosed by people who know better- and who will always know better. Cisgendered men and women who posit themselves as trans experts, primarily as a career advancing move, but who are fawned on by colleagues and the members of the press that deign to occasionally give our issues some space in the news.

The lovely lie that drifts through the coverage is, of course, that these people know us so well because they’ve seen us and done research on us. All very official and sciencey.

Well, here’s my research:

It took a lot of deeply personal effort to shine a light on the darkest recesses of my mind, putting my education to work so that it might elucidate some mysteries I once sheltered deep in my mind’s shadow. To think beyond what I was taught and consider all possibilities. To learn, slowly but surely, why society made us do and believe certain things, why I was raised as I was, and what lay beyond those carefully drawn boundaries.

These words belie the years of effort, and pain. Pain from not knowing why I hated myself, why I sometimes wanted to just curl up and die, why despite my theoretically bright academic future I dreaded becoming an adult male, why I squirmed with self-loathing whenever I was in a relationship with someone. Through all of that I did not know what the hell was wrong with me, even as I worked tirelessly and assiduously to find out what. Having shed much of my Catholic socialisation I was unafraid to consider the possibilities others would’ve had me shun, but even as I flirted with being trans I was smart enough to know how hard this all was, the risk it would be, the expense, the additional pain, the upheaval…

Getting over that took even more time.

It took meeting other trans people to really get my head around what went into all of this and whether this would be my path as well. In all of that sharing was intimacy, love, angst, anger. A cacophanous chorus of issues crashing against one another as I tried to find meaning in every precious new note I heard. There was experimenting in secret, lying to myself about what it was, roleplaying as women in online games, living vicariously through other women. Everything was trying to get out, faster than I could identify and neatly categorise it with confidence in its accuracy. I was at war with myself and didn’t even realise it until fairly recently. What’s more, I had to clean up a tremendous mess in my mind to uncover the truth; untangling my true feelings from what I was socialised to feel. (More on that next time.)

If this is not a deeply personal journey that isn’t entirely about self-knowing then nothing could ever possibly be.

So to be gainsaid by people who demand documentary proof is infuriating in a way that inspires passion I’d hitherto not known I had. In places where I am not known as a person, it is certainly nice to produce ID that matches my gender identity. It greases the wheels, it makes life easier for everyone involved. That doesn’t bust my chops so much. It’s the doctor’s letter that conflicts me the most.

This touches on a massive landmine in the trans community, of course: the pathologising of our beings. Are we truly disordered? To the point where a ‘professional’ diagnosis and examination are required, and placed well ahead of what we think, feel, experience, and know? I don’t purport to know the answer to this question. I’m not naïve enough to think my feelings or experiences are universal among trans people. We’re not all alike; in us is reflected the infinite diversity of the human race.

But to be honest I never felt truly disordered. My anxiety was a manufactured product of socialisation, of being raised to “know” I was a male, that females were this other species, and that never the twain shall meet. It took a lot of self-educating, digging, and assorted chiselling to get away from that. My angst sprung from the fact that no one ever told me that I might actually be a woman. Such was impossible, of course. We all “know” this.

Any good sociologist will tell you in a heartbeat that psychologists and psychiatrists perform incredibly needed scientific functions, and then whisper under their breath that they’re just agents of socialisation at the end of the day. Like the police officer, the parent, the clergyman, the schoolteacher, the psychiatrist enforces the commonly agreed upon norms and mores of our society. They have more objective science to work with, but there are an embarrassing number of psychiatric grey areas that reflect less science and more social attitudes that they take it upon themselves to enforce.

It really is this obvious sometimes.
It really is this obvious sometimes.

I find it ironic to consider that if I was or am disordered it’s merely because society comes down hard on people who do what I do. Which, truthfully, is a disorder that has nothing to do with being a transsexual woman. It has to do with being sad. It has to do with feeling alone; feeling like you can’t trust anyone out there for fear of what they’d do to you if they ever found you out. All of that fear and self-loathing is caused by the pervasive sense that society will not accept me and that as a consequence I will not know love or have friends. I know now that I can have both. But in the years I was struggling with myself, there weren’t exactly big friendly signs telling me that’d be the case.

This has less to do with me being trans than it does with me violating a social norm, and in my particular case a lot to do with the fact that my existence is an affirmation of femininity and its virtues. My willing pursuit of it is a big no-no in a Patriarchy. (The flipside for trans men is that bigots will see them as “women who don’t know their place”- again it all filters back to the broader sexism that afflicts our society.)

But when you look at all of this and examine it thoroughly you see that trans as a discrete state of being has little to do with this. In my own experience it’s felt almost peripheral.

When I had to show that letter to my father, even to the clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles, I felt a bit defeated. Despite everything I’d been through, the only person I’d end up proving myself to was… well, myself. To everyone else who, by dint of a record on the state computer, or because they saw me grow up, thinks I’m male… I have to prove myself somehow- and my words, however eloquent, are not good enough. There’s no denying that Doctor’s Note makes it a hell of lot easier and more official. Nothing like taking advantage of peoples’ infinite trust of men in white coats to make you hate socially assigned roles in this comical pageant of life a little more.

I just wish that certain people would take me at my word when I talk about my experience.

I’m With You

I Am A WomanHaving been inducted into the Femmisphere by my good friend over at FemmEssay it is perhaps worth meditating once again on the unicorniness of the whole Nuclear Unicorn thing. So let’s get down and funky with it while I drop some serious verbal groove.

Or funk. Or whatever. The point is that as the convenient illustration to the left shows, I am a woman. But we wouldn’t be here if it were that simple. I think that if I had to give a piece of advice to transsexual people who were just coming out, one that would be regarded as a rare gem of insight, it would have to be a warning, I am sad to say. We expect our enemies to come from the religious right and from the social conservative movement, and we are often reminded of why we must always be wary of them. But a trans person also must look over the left shoulder as some of our worst enemies are unabashed liberals.

That’s been very hard for me to swallow, without question. My own ideological commitments, as the rest of this journal has heretofore shown, are quite liberal. My heart beats Left and I ain’t ashamed to say it. But I know that self identified liberals will try to convince me I’m a male for various reasons, when it suits their needs. At best you might get some diversity obsessed tosser who gleefully tells you “Wow, you almost look like a real woman!” and tote you around to prove how tolerant they are. Most cuttingly, however, some feminists will simply deny me. That’s been the bitterest pill of all.

For years I always found myself sympathizing with other women and never quite getting the doodz who were supposed to be my comrades in arms. Whenever the cry of “pfah, women!” went up, I raised my glass only halfheartedly, knowing that something was wrong with my participation in this exercise of social separation. It was only in the last couple of years that I at last accepted I’d been pitching for the wrong team. It doesn’t mean that my feminism didn’t burn me hard in the past, however. Many male colleagues and acquaintances were made just a little uncomfortable at how I guilted them for their crass, casual sexism.

My own father struggled vainly for years to get me to come around to his entitled view of the world, to teach me to “love women” in the way that he did. He often got angry at me for not catcalling with him, often noted that I’d not leer at attractive women when we were out in public, and even berated me for fancying girls at school who he deemed unattractive. He certainly wasn’t the only one who attempted to socialize me in this way. Against him and all others I argued vehemently and with a passion that I never knew was so deeply personal.

I thought I was being a feminist male. I never quite knew that it was my own dignity I was defending against the tireless objectification of people like my father. But my own dignity it was.

What some radical feminists don’t quite get is that I am a victim of misogyny, just as they are, and that our beloved Patriarchy is no gentler on me than it is with them. It is at times even worse for one very good reason: Men will act out their worst misogynist fantasies on trans women.

For you see, we exist in that cosy netherspace of looking and sounding like women but, you know, not being women- according to them. When I first came out my father tried to grope me, in perverse fascination at my growing breasts, called me a “whore”, and demanded that I do “what a woman is supposed to do” if I’m so intent on being one which was, of course, cooking for him and cleaning up after him.

He explicitly said that’s what a woman was supposed to do. He never had the balls to say this to my mother (who looked at him aghast as he said it), but to me, a woman who was fighting against his perceptions for her femininity, he was more than comfortable saying and doing all of those things. He wants to treat women this way, he just feels constrained. I provide him with a convenient target to act out his sexist fantasies upon since I’m kind of like a woman but not a “real woman.”

Make no mistake, if this is transphobia it exists only as a subset of pure, unadulterated misogyny.

I have often said that when it comes to violence and bias against trans women it is not the fact that we’re ‘gender deviant’ that gets us attacked, but what gender we are deviating towards that earns the ire of people like my father. That is something that should alarm all women.

Should feminists be in the business of carrying water for patriarchs? I can think of no greater insult to our movement.

The mainline of their argument is unironically used essentialism. I am not a woman, nor can I ever be one, because I was born with a penis.

Let’s examine this for a hot second: Feminists have long railed against this society’s phallocentrism, and against a myriad of sexist presumptions dressed in the gown of science (think Freud’s Penis Envy), and long condemned the asinine acculturated idea that the penis carries with it any sort of innate power and entitlement, and that because we build world-ending bombs in their shape is no validation of the notion.

So how can one of their number suddenly turn around and deny me my womanhood on exactly the same basis as my father? Look at everything he’s said and done. If you bristled you did so rightly. Yet in denying my womanhood some radical feminists would say, verbatim, what my father has said: my little estrogenised cock is more important than everything else about my personhood, my life, my experiences, my personality, and the rest of my body.

What really gets me sighing and holding my head is when some of those same people come along and say that even a trans woman who’s had bottom surgery is still a man because they used to be penis-havers. I never thought I’d see the day when a feminist let the ghost of a penis define another woman. How sexist men must howl with self-satisfied laughter. They’re getting feminists of all people to do their dirty work for them, lock, stock, and two smoking barrels full of bullshit.

How could a feminist imbue that blasted organ with so much power in a way that is not at all different from how patriarchal men have done it for years? Treating it as an immutable birthright in whose veins is the essential privilege of manhood; this is radioactive water that I as a woman will not carry. No woman should. Our dignity should not permit it.

I am something that makes many men uncomfortable and with very good reason. I call into question the immutability of sex and gender; I call into question any innate concept of manhood’s superiority. I can do this with well reasoned arguments, but I call this pap and nonsense into question by merely existing.

If you want further proof of how misogyny has for so long stabbed us and tried to define us, you need look no further than that great gleaming edifice of purported objectivity: Psychiatry. Consider the following: as more and more trans people started coming out and going to therapists to be allowed to start hormone treatment and get the permissions we needed to transition, the world was rapidly changing around us all. The 60s were upon us and feminism was once again bursting through the dam.

When presented with a trans woman most male psychiatrists treated us with derision even as they allowed us to pass through their gates to access what we needed to transition. They stressed as they did so, however, that in order to be “real women” we had to be demure.  That’s right, if you were in any way assertive, they pegged you as a male. You also had to love makeup and pretty dresses. If you didn’t, you weren’t a “true transsexual.” You had to be the perfect fembot in order to convince them you were truly gender dysphoric and thus worthy of their help.

Maybe we can’t change all those radical women burning their bras, they thought, but we can have control over these very vulnerable women right here in our offices. Let’s make them into our image of what being a woman should be.

If that doesn’t come from sexism, where does it come from?

Many therapists these days have become more progressive, but others still cling to these ideas, like the notorious gender clinic in Toronto, at the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. In a recent Atlantic Monthly article (one I have severe problems with) I was reading that discussed how trans people are coming out at increasingly younger ages, for ‘balance’ Hanna Rosin went there to interview the head doctor, Dr. Zucker, whose practises should raise wailing alarms in feminist circles of all stripes.

He purports to be able to “cure” us if we’re identified at a young age and get us to act in line with the organs with which we were born if we ‘act up.’ How did he do this with one ‘little boy who wanted to be a girl’?

Well, see for yourself:

They boxed up all of John’s girl-toys and videos and replaced them with neutral ones. Whenever John cried for his girl-toys, they would ask him, “Do you think playing with those would make you feel better about being a boy?” and then would distract him with an offer to ride bikes or take a walk. They turned their house into a 1950s kitchen-sink drama, intended to inculcate respect for patriarchy, in the crudest and simplest terms: “Boys don’t wear pink, they wear blue,” they would tell him, or “Daddy is smarter than Mommy—ask him.” If John called for Mommy in the middle of the night, Daddy went, every time.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Now think long and hard about this and this “curing” process. If the words “flagrant misogyny” aren’t flashing through your head in big, unfriendly red letters I don’t know what else to tell you.

Look at how trans women are treated in the psychiatric realm, among other things, see what is used to attack us, to other us, to un-person us. Every single time it’s a slight permutation of an argument used against women as a whole. Zucker wanted those parents to condition their child to hate women and to see his mother as a subordinate inferior. Is this how some radfems want trans women to be erased?

Do they want to drag womanhood through a very muddy gutter just to get rid of us? Or might there be more to all of this than a mere knobbly bag of flesh?

Do we really want to reduce womanhood to that thing? Do we want to say that trans women’s inability to bear children or menstruate invalidates us, backhandedly saying that’s all that really makes a woman? Note very carefully that innumerable patriarchal men reduce us to baby making machines. Is that water you want to carry for even five seconds?

This above all, however: We’re in this together, sisters. In our sisterhood there will always be a power no words can break and that misogyny cannot hope to breach.

Why Not Coal-Fired Unicorn?

Well, several reasons. One, it doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, and two it would be rather smelly. Who needs smelly when you can be radioactive?

Radioactive. It’s a marvelous word that encapsulates far more than the sum of its syllables, certainly. It’s one of those nice words this language bequeaths to us as a gift for minds to twist into new shapes like so much play-doh or taffy. It can be very literal, or very figurative. This unicorn’s radioactivity is best described as figurative, but with very literal consequences.

Why don’t I start from the beginning, hm?

Nuclear unicorn was something that a close friend called me not long ago as we were giggling about something both macropolitical and personal. The fact that I could, apparently, threaten the world. It was in response to some news story, one so generic that the specifics melt away in the sea of samey text and dogma. Another bull handed down from His Infallible-ness The Pope about how those who defy gender norms are as big a threat to the human race as loggers are to the rainforest.

Apparently I have the power to destroy humanity.

My friend and I found this wickedly funny and in a pique of her particular brand of womanly wit remarked “You’re a nuclear unicorn, Quinnae!” Rare, special, almost mythical, and yet evidently packing enough heat to destroy a large city and render it uninhabitable for centuries. Naturally my first thought was “…hot damn, I’m awesome.”

That covers the nuclear bit. But from whence comes the unicorn? Well, the story her and I were laughing about gave you a hint. I defy gender norms.

This is not something I say with smug pride or that I tote around like some perverse ideological iPod or political accessory. Some might think it makes me trendy. They’re idiots. No, I just say that this is what I do as a point of fact; a la ‘I breathe’ or ‘I use the bathroom’ or ‘when I fart it smells like almonds.’ It’s not something to be proud or ashamed of. It just is.

I defy gender norms because I’m a transsexual woman. Therein is another mere, if irritatingly relevant, fact about who I am.

That’s just something about me. Like my hair colour or height. According to some, however, by dint of that fact I can destroy the world. So the question becomes, do I use this power for good or for evil, for justice, sin, or for the last slice of pizza? Well, if my super special power is to destroy the world, a girl just doesn’t have many options, now does she? It’s like I got bitten by a radioactive nuke when I was a baby, and really, is there any other kind? How unlucky could I be?

But them’s the breaks, so let’s get to it.

I can be harnessed for good purposes and that’s the ultimate thrust behind this journal. (The word blog is so hopelessly trendy that I’m going to trap myself on a moebius strip of self contradiction by being anti-trendy and calling it a ‘journal’, capesce?) My life by itself gives me a lot to talk about that is, as Janis Joplin would say, of great social and political import. Of course, this spirally horn on my forehead, how others perceive it, and how it affects my life isn’t the only thing I have to talk about.

Feminism and women’s issues, healthcare and welfare, war, terrorism, sex, drugs (mostly Tylenol), rock and roll, death metal, and Hello Kitty, these are a few of my favourite things… to talk about. They’ll all get their turn, you’ll all get to know me…

And hopefully after a little while of hanging out with me you’ll all glow in the dark.