Posts Tagged ‘transsexual

03
Apr
17

Spoken Word Piece, TDoV 2017 at University of Michigan: Visibility Has Failed Us

This is a spoken-word piece I first performed when hosting the University of Michigan’s Transgender Day of Visibility Speak-Out event on March 31st, 2017.

**********************

They told us visibility would save us.

We were told for so long that if we could just get people to see us, if we only took off our invisibility cloaks and let people get a good long look at who we really are, that we’d finally have a place in the world.

After all, it worked for gay people. Kind of. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks came out in massive waves and suddenly it seemed a lot harder to hate the gays because they were your next door neighbors, your tax account, your school principal. They starred your movies, wrote your TV shows, and produced your Broadway musicals. It should be the same for trans people, right?

Except it wasn’t like that.

They saw us, and they immediately hated us even more.

They saw the way we undermined the system that hold so close to their hearts, to the notion that is so intrinsic to their being that even looking at us makes them want to hurt us…the immutable, inviolable, absolute binaries of sex and gender.

And the idea that we had been quietly moving among them for years without anyone so much as noticing, that we had been next to them at the grocery store, sitting in the same movie theater, eating the same restaurants, attending the same schools, working in the same offices…

WE HAD BEEN PISSING RIGHT NEXT TO THEM IN THEIR BATHROOMS FOR YEARS AND THEY NEVER EVEN KNEW WE WERE THERE.

They saw us and and they panicked, unable to cope with a new vision of the world where one can no longer know how a person’s genitals and chromosomes are shaped at a simple glance. They didn’t shift their worldview to find a space for us. They decided to make the world fit what they needed, by killing us through violence, discrimination, marginalization, and neglect.

Visibility has failed us.

Yup. There, I said it.

Visibility has failed trans people.

It failed us because it’s based on the false assumption that we could somehow turn ourselves into something palatable and consumable by cisgender people, that we could have the agency to turn visibility into a way of setting our narrative, that we could make transness “normal”, that we could prove to cis people that we are just like them.

For many of us, visibility was never a choice anyway. The visibility narrative is based on the idea that all trans people can choose to fade into the crowd if we so choose, and so that visibility becomes a thing for empowerment and self-definition.

But for so many of us, visibility isn’t a choice. Those can’t or won’t assume cisnormative appearances and behavior will always be marked. For those without access to the shields of whiteness, of affluence, of ability, visibility is an everyday reality…and the sudden rising paranoia about our mere existence has painted a target on their backs that is is too indelible to scrub off.

Visibility as a mechanism for our liberation never had any hope for anyone but the whitest, wealthiest, and most cisnormative looking trans people, and it left the rest of us in the dust.

And so, I’m here to reclaim my visibility for myself and for my trans siblings.

I’m putting cis people on notice. My transness isn’t something constructed for your consumption, and my outness doesn’t exist for your education, your edification, or your self-congratulatory allyhood.

I am not your object of fascination,

I am not your walking fetish,

I am not your ticket to progressive credibility,

and I am definitely not your free fount of information on all things trans.

 

I am not for you to stare at. (And believe me, we feel it when you stare.)

 

My visibility isn’t for you.

My visibility is for every trans woman whose only experience with transness is in daytime talk-shows, right-wing propaganda, dead girls on Law & Order:SVU, and bad porn.

My visibility is for the 16 year trans girl still desperately trying to find a way to tell her parents that the lurching forward of her testosterone-fueled puberty makes her want to die.

My visibility is for the fat trans girl who thinks that she’s the only chubby trans girl in the whole world and that she can’t ever be beautiful in her own skin.

My visibility is for my black trans sisters who feel like not one single voice in the media has their back or cares whether they live or die.

My visibility is for the middle-aged trans woman who is still in the closet, who needs to hear my story, to find some piece of it that resonates with her so that her journey to herself can finally begin.

My visibility is for every college-age trans girl who is terrified that there’s no life after college, that no one from our community ever finds success and happiness.

My visibility is for the trans lesbian who’s struggling with the validity of her sexuality because lesbian culture still equates being a dyke with having a vagina.

My visibility is for the neurodivergent trans girls, the disabled trans girls, the chronically ill trans girls who are wondering if transition and disability are things that can coexist.

My visibility is for every single baby trans girl who I’ve mentored over the last half-decade, who needed a mother-figure or a big sister to make a big hateful world seem a little less cold and dark.

My visibility for every trans girl who has taken her own life because the world just seemed too terrible and dangerous and unwelcoming.

My visibility is for me, for scared, lost 18 year old me, who would have given anything in the world to see a pretty young trans woman in real life, to meet even one person like her, to have someone tell her about the journey to being herself, to make it seem like something that was truly achievable instead of some impossible mountain to climb.

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16
Jan
14

Terminology, Labels, Descriptors, Boxes and Prisons Made of Words, or “Why descriptive terms are like underwear, and how Julia Serano made me change mine.”

Ahhh, terminology. Amongst queer folks, it’s a Pandora’s Box of potentially ugly arguments. For the transgender/genderqueer/gender-variant/gender-non-conforming (pick whichever umbrella term is your favorite of the day), some days it feels less like a Pandora’s Box, and more like big glass of nitroglycerin (you know, even breath wrong and it blows up in your face). One of the most interesting (and problematic) issues with the terminology that surrounding non-cis people is that, frankly, no one seems to be able to agree on what the terms actually mean. Hell, beyond the fact that people can debate all day about what exactly it means to be “genderqueer”, “gender-fluid”, or “transgender”, we really haven’t settled (as a community) on what exactly one is referring to with terms like “sex” and “gender”! (Here’s a hint, it’s a WHOLE LOT more complicated than “gender is between your ears, and sex is between your legs). At this juncture, I’m even entirely sure I could give succinct definitions (based upon my own beliefs) of what exactly “sex” and “gender” mean to me. (Though that discussion would definitely make an excellent essay for another time). In any case, there are quite literally many dozens of glossaries of sex-and-gender-related terms all over the internet, written by everything from big national groups like The National Center for Transgender Equality and GLAAD, to smaller advocacy sites like TransWhat and TSRoadMap, to individual bloggers like Natalie Reed and Erin Houdini. Not shockingly, even amongst just those six, there’s pretty significant variation as to how the various terms are defined.

“So, TNF,” you might say, “how on earth are you going to talk about terminology and labels without an consensus views on what the terms even mean?” Well, random hypothetical person I made up, I’m going to circumvent that by not trying to assign a universal definition to ANY terminology. After all, I’m really just a random girl on the internet who decided to sit down at her laptop one day and start writing…it’s not really my place to start assigning concrete meaning to terms. Instead, I’m going to talk about the importance (and to some extend the non-importance) of labels, identities and terminology, and how the term I use to describe myself have evolved along with my personal understanding of myself as a person.

So, let me start off by saying what labels and terms SHOULDN’T be. They definitely shouldn’t be rigid boxes that place firm constraints on who and what people are. Once we start putting firm walls up around labels and identities, you’re also certainly going to fuck it up and screw somebody over. Human variation (from height, hair, and eye color to sex and sexual orientation) is impressively gradient. You can trust me on this, I’m a scientist! They also absolutely shouldn’t be used to injure, marginalize, exclude, or oppress others. Once we start projecting our own absolute definitions of various terminology onto others, it’s very easy to slide into “us vs them” types of thinking. After all, once we start drawing circles around who counts as “us,” pretty much everyone else becomes “them.” This sort of behavior seems to become particularly problematic among the least privileged of minorities. Trans people have some pretty heated arguments about who exactly is or isn’t trans, and whether or not someone is “trans enough” (I’ve heard this referred to as the “tranny-er than thou” argument.) I’ve certainly see similar behavior in lesbian circles as well (and even had some of it directed at me). I think it comes having to expend so much energy scratching out a little space in the world that we then feel compelled to defend that tiny space with the ferocity of a polar bear on PCP. Unfortunately, most of the rage is often misdirected at another marginalized group, instead of the actual source of oppression. The end result is a lot of energy spent (pretty much pointless) in-fighting instead of working to actually improve our effing situation. Of course, our individuals thoughts are important in the overall conversation of ideas that evolve (and create) our terminology. But, in grand scheme of things, how we decide a term is defined applies pretty much only to us as individuals.

Instead of “labels” on rigid metaphorical containers, I think it’s much more useful (and healthy) to think of the terminology as a descriptor, as succinct, convenient summaries. That is…instead of committing to our preferred terms as a closely-held identity, we ought to use think of them as “things we use to describe ourselves.” Very few of us think of “brown-haired person” or “blued eyed person” or “average height person” as important, intrinsic personal identities…our terms for our gender, sex, sexual orientation, etc shouldn’t be much different. If metaphors work for you (I love metaphors), instead of thinking of our terminology as something tattooed onto us -indelible, permanent, and unalterable things etched onto us…we should think of them like underwear- important, but only useful while it’s comfortable and easy to change once it starts to bind us up.

There are three big improvements in thinking about terms this way. First, it helps us accept the idea that the descriptor doesn’t have to fit perfectly, that sometimes we’re just hunting for a best-fit descriptor. As an example: when I’m dealing with lots of straight folks who aren’t terribly well acquainted with queer culture, I tend to describe myself as a lesbian. This is far from a perfect descriptor, but “queer and attracted to female-identified and female-leaning people regardless of assigned sex, and evolving somewhere in the poorly defined area between sexual and demisexual” is a mouthful. I actually just prefer the term “queer”, but that just invites irritating questions in that kind of company, and I’m not often looking to give a “Queer 101” lesson in random conversation. So, sometimes, lesbian works just fine. But because I see lesbian (and queer) as a descriptive term instead of a label on a bin, I don’t have any inherent need to give much thought to policing who or who isn’t “really” lesbian or queer.

Secondly, it helps us be more open to evolution, both in our descriptions of ourselves, and our personal understanding of our terminology. After all, if we think of our current preferred term as a clear label with firm boundaries, we’re going to find it a lot harder to change labels, even if our understanding of ourselves has changed. It might even prevent us from seeking a deeper understanding of our identity out of fear of finding that a label we’re heavily invested in no longer applies to us. However, if we view our terms as simply short convenient summaries of our current general position, it becomes much easier to swap out those terms when they’re no longer feeling accurate. And if we’re not committed to an unyielding definition of a particular term, it’s possible that how we look at that term can evolve through experience, research, and conversation. Perhaps a book, an interview, a talk, a personal experience (or a blog post!) presents a new way of looking at the terms we’re currently adopted (or maybe even previously adopted, or maybe even have never adopted but still think about). I think we’re much more likely to allow that experience to change your mind if you’re open the malleability of descriptive terminology.

Finally, it frees us from policing the behavior and identities of ourselves and others. When we’re invested in a rigid identity labels, we become incredibly conscious of any violations of those definitions. We judge and criticize others for not fitting exactly into our notions of what is “transsexual”, “transgender”, “queer”, or even “female”. Even worse, we restrict our behavior to fit within that box, to become someone we might not really be for the sake for fitting neatly into the square we (or others) have drawn. I find that notion particularly tragic for trans folks, as we’ve often literally risked everything- including our lives- to live genuinely, only to cram ourselves into yet another imperfect box. Letting go of that rigid commitment frees us to accept the broad variation in others, to be less concerned about how other behave- and most importantly- to just be our damn selves without compromise or contrition.

Like so many other trans people, I spent many years meandering amongst different labels and descriptive terms for myself, and oscillating between accepting and rejecting the idea of giving a label at all. I don’t think I even knew what a transsexual was until I got access to the Internet when i was 16 (I’m in my 30s, okay?). Even then, I rejected that label for myself. (Back then, internet information about “how to know if you are transsexual” was pretty awful). I think my first identity description was something vaguely mumbled about “being kinda like a girl who looks like a boy” when I came out a girlfriend at 20. I tried on a lot of different labels in my early explorations of my gender identity, including “pangender”, “third gender”, and (in a few moments of real self-hate) “cisgender pervert who is making this all up”. I proudly wore the term “genderqueer” for a few years, mostly because I was flatly refusing to consider anything else because I was convinced I’d be a very ugly monster of a girl if I transitioned. It certainly sounded better than “male assigned at birth who knows she’s really a girl but is fucking terrified of transition so she’s currently elected not to pursue it.” The first time I went out in public presenting as female pretty much tossed all of that in the trash, and I began to refer to myself as transgender pretty quickly there after. (I find this kinda funny to reflect on, because I definitely have pictures from those early days, and OH GODS am I embarrassed of how I looked!). I was on the road to physical transition a year or so later.

Through all of transition, I was pretty adamant about my preference for the term “transgender”, and my rejection of term “transsexual”. Years of exposure to stereotypes and horrible media cliche had soured me on the word “transsexual.” It sounded lurid, provocative, almost pornographic to my ears. It reminded me of the generally pretty disgusting portrayals of trans people in pornography. It felt like a reminder of all the ways people misinterpret the reasons for transition as being based upon prurient desire and deviant sexual behavior. I felt like using it to describe myself to other would immediate put in THEIR minds all of those awful media stereotypes pushed into the public mind by the likes of Jerry Springer. In essence, I felt like the rest of the world had sullied the word transsexual to a degree where it was unsalvageable. I knew pretty early on that large number other people viewed the term “transgender” as an umbrella for all people of non-cis gender identities, but I put those out of my mind. I had little arguments here and there about how I felt that “transgender” shouldn’t be an umbrella term, how it should be reserved for those who at least socially transition, and that we should adopt something like “genderqueer” as a blanket term for non-cisgender people. I even admitted, first to myself and then to others, that I pretty well fit the “classic” notion of a what a transsexual person is. So, I stuck firmly to “transgender” and “trans” as my descriptors.

And then, while writing a different (as yet unpublished) piece about the politics of gender labels, I came across this brilliant blog post from Julia Serano. I’ll admit, Julia’s the sort of writing I’m predisposed to be being influenced by, and her book “Whipping Girl” had been fundamental to my coming to understand myself as a trans woman. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to suddenly and succinctly have my views on the word “transsexual” turned completely on their head. She writes:

    “A final objection to the word “transsexual” has to do with the presence of the word “sex” within it. There is a popular misconception that trans people transition for sexual reasons (e.g., to prey on innocent straight folks, to fulfill some bizarre sexual fantasy, etc.), and many trans folks seem to fear that the word transsexual (because of the word “sex”) enables those assumptions. One can see the de-sexualization of transsexuality in the growing use of the phrase “gender confirmation surgery” to replace “sex reassignment surgery.” I think it also plays a role in why many physically-transitioned folks prefer transgender to transsexual. It’s as if the words “gender/transgender” simply sound more polite and respectable than the words “sex/transsexual.””

Immediately after reading that, I kinda felt like I had been kicked in the head; I was reeling. She had hit on pretty much exactly the sorts of feels I had about term. (She also takes down a number of other objections I had in other parts of the article…you really should go read it). It’s one thing to read something that helps you evolve your understanding of topic…it’s quite another to suddenly have that understanding completely called into question. She continues:

    “While many trans people use “gender” as shorthand for gender identity, in these other areas the word is more commonly used to refer to gender expression or roles (i.e., masculinity, femininity, androgyny). This confusion leads many people to presume that transsexuals transition in order to become gender-conforming or because we uncritically want to perpetuate sexist gender roles, and so on. This is not the case, at least not for me and most transsexuals I’ve spoken with. I experimented with and expressed my femininity plenty when I was male-bodied. For me, transitioning was first and foremost about my physical sex, not gender expression. Being male-bodied felt wrong to me and being female-bodied feels right.” [emphasis mine]

Well, fuck me. Game, set, match for Julia on this one. Dumbfounded is a pretty accurate description of how I felt afterwards…how had I completely missed such a simple idea until now? It honestly took me a few days to process this new set of thoughts…to roll it around in my brain and see if how well I could deal with the sudden shift in view…to see if it really stuck. And, despite feeling a little dizzy from the metaphorical head blow, it really did stick with me. It seems like a such a small bit of insight, but it dramatically altered my views of a word that I previously harboured downright revulsion towards. (There’s the importance of evolution I talked about earlier.)  So, while I’m still not 100% comfortable with the “baggage” that comes along with calling myself transsexual, I’m marching forward with it anyway. I’m “taking it back” as the kids say.
I’m a transsexual woman, and I’m proud to say so.




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