Archive for December, 2012

December 14, 2012

being what i am, there is no other Troy for me to burn

Disclaimer: i do not believe that how old you were when you transitioned, what you look like, how big or small your body parts are, the current shape of your genitals, or anything regularly used to divide trans people has any effect whatsoever on your validity. i am not special, different, awesome, or bad because of my life experiences, but i do inherently speak from and about my experiences because that’s what i know. part of that is how any departure from the standard “trans woman narrative” comes with consequences, and that inherently makes my experiences different. that said: i am not better than you and you are not better than me.

i’m gonna get one of my bigger confessions out at the beginning of this post: i was the prom queen.

i was not because i was radiantly pretty or terribly popular, but because i got all the jocks, queers, geeks, theatre types and outcasts to vote for me, all the other cliqueless girls in my school. i was an astute politician, and i knew that instead of repeating the usual pattern of those people not voting, i played up my strengths to those cliques, which i freely bounced in between. instead of ignoring the election, they voted, and they voted for me. readers, i have never worn that much makeup and had that much fake hair going on, and i think we blew half a can of Aqua Net getting it just so.  there was definitely a girdle (you know, what we had before Spanx or Yummie Tummie…) and some serious “control top” action going on with my tights. was i beautiful? well, my girlfriend thought so…but at the same time, because this is reality and not a fairy tale, i’m pretty sure i can tell you i was the fattest (size 18, yo!) and most acne-ridden prom queen in the history of my high school.  was it a joke? no, no it wasn’t, and frankly my school was respectful enough of a place that everyone at least publicly and semi-privately accepted defeat with grace. was i terrified it was a joke? you have no idea. is it still a special and cherished part of my past? yeah, actually, it is. but like other people who transitioned earlier on in life, it’s something where a lot of trans women never want to hear realities, they just want to project their fantasies on to how great they’re sure your life was. any truth being spoken to that meets with silencing, accusations of lying, or outright spite. i’m not sorry i didn’t live up to an impossible fantasy, because i was the prettiest, most radiant Erica i could have been. i mean, hell, it was the one time in my entire life that my mother called me “pretty” and didn’t attach some barbed insult to it.

reality often throws water on the coals of the overly imaginative. i don’t dispute that it’s good to have an imagination and to think about things that involve the phrase “what if”, but this sense of imagination needs to be used judiciously and never to erase the lived experiences of others. like it or not, telling someone else how they have “squandered their gift” or similar is shaming behavior designed to say that you know better than they do how they were supposed to live their lives. i have made choices i don’t regret for a second, and i have made choices that i regret immensely, but those choices were mine and mine alone to make and others don’t get to weigh in on how their plan for my life was supposed to go. if you didn’t know me when i was a fourteen-year-old ball of stress, nerves, and fear, i don’t really think you get the right to go back and retcon how my life “should have been”. it shows a lack of respect for individuality, self-determination, and the ownership of your own life. it also shows a willingness to idealize a very narrow set of experiences that erases the fact that even “early transitioners” come in all shapes and sizes. i am tall, strong, curvy, and sturdy, which might not meet your preconceived notions, but this is who i am.

Riki Wilchins is somewhat emblematic of “old school” trans activism, but her past has run rather counter to transfundamentalism in embracing that it’s okay to be different and bringing gender theory into the debate in a trans-positive way, but Ms. Wilchins has often reinforced an us-them structure even when she’s trying to make gender theory more accessible. this is actually a general criticism of academia, and in Queer Theory, Gender Theory Ms. Wilchins’ missteps are many but they are easily overshadowed by the fact that she manages coherent explanations of gender theory that are remarkably coherent and free of jargon. because of this, i had actually pretty much reconsidered my problems with Ms. Wilchins and her past, some of which included co-opting some words that weren’t hers to use and the fact that her political ends seem to keep changing. but you know what? i can forgive that all if you made a decent, if a bit flawed, Gender 101 from a trans-positive, genderqueer-inclusive perspective. it needed to happen, and Ms. Wilchins did a great job. QT,GT had its share of errors, especially around intersex issues, but we all screw up now and then and the positive aspects of the book clearly and convincingly outweighed the negative. it was, if you ask me, Ms. Wilchins’ finest hour.

so you can imagine my surprise and disappointment at an article Ms. Wilchins wrote in the Advocate about trans women and girls who voice their gender earlier in life and follow a “hormone blocker”-based treament protocol.  she calls them “blocker babies”, which we’ll talk about later. the degree to which Ms. Wilchins idealizes a single experience that’s not here continues and exemplifies the erasure of trans people who transition earlier in life through the lens of…one thirteen-year-old girl, and focuses on things like her appearance and how boys treat her. lest you object to my terminology, as someone who lived in that gender role at that age…when you’re thirteen, you’re a “girl”. “young woman” is almost invariably patronizing, and society continues to make you out to be a “girl” well into adulthood in many cases, but maybe that’s something for another blog entry. i’m gonna level with you, Ms. Wilchins…i expected a whole hell of a lot better from you than the carnival of fail that is this piece. there’s two possibilities for this piece, that she is letting out her own issues about “what if…” in looking at a trans girl, which is not the way one really should be getting therapy, or alternately that Ms. Wilchins was using  a trans girl as a form of zoo exhibit for the Advocate‘s largely cisgay audience because that’s what they expect, or that’s how the article was edited.

either way, though, the damage is the same. whether Ms. Wilchins is treating the subject of the story like a zoo exhibit for cis people, an object of envy and othering for other trans women, or both, her language and tone alike are Deeply Problematic, to wit: “…made this blond 13-year-old into an entirely non-transgender transsexual. One whose gender, and social identity, will be always and completely female to every adult she knows or meets. With the right surgeon, she might not ever tell her husband or wife.”

well, nothing to get the ol’ hackles up like playing “transgender vs. transsexual”, a time-honored transfundamentalist practice for trying to divide groups of people based on a list of criteria that nobody seems to be able to elucidate. i would certainly expect better from Ms. Wilchins, but not only does she claim that someone’s “gender and social identity will be always and completely female to every adult she knows or meets”, there’s a bunch of fail in there. what if she chooses to be out? what if she doesn’t live the life you’re assuming she’s going to live? because believe you me, there are plenty of people who will see you as “always and completely female” after you come out to them, but there are plenty of people who won’t, no matter how “simply impossible to see her as anything but a woman” it is. we’ve been around this tree before: i am by no means pretty but i’ve never had any trouble being seen in my preferred gender role, so i understand to a point…but what difference does this really make? this delineation only hurts us and it only devalues people who don’t fit a bunch of cisnormative expectations about what a person of their gender is supposed to be. i want no part of that, and given that Ms. Wilchins speaks of rejecting such expectations, i don’t think she should be devaluing herself, either. like it or not, we’re all trans*, we share common threads, but we aren’t all the same people, and i don’t think exclusive and dividing labels should be part of our discourse.

second of all, Ms. Wilchins’ verbiage parallels a dangerous yarn  frequently spun by transfundamentalists: “completely female to every adult she knows or meets” (…i guess children don’t matter?) this is actually the worst thing in the article because it holds up the idea that your life is completely cisnormative after transition if you “do it right”. it ignores that we may have certain psychological needs, social needs, etc. post-transition and absolutely steamrolls a reality all trans people face with: we have continuing medical needs that don’t magically go away because of transition, and oftentimes there is no framework whatsoever if you lose medical access to pick it up again unless you live somewhere where there are informed consent treatment options. most of us in the US don’t live in those few major cities with IC access and there is no present safety net for people who are already on hormones if a doctor subscribes to the “WPATH standards” for who is allowed to have hormones. you can go read it, i’ll wait.  i’ve been shouted down for asking this question, but if your doctor/clinic who gives you hormones vanished tomorrow, what would you do?  i mean, i transitioned at about the age the subject of Ms. Wilchins’ article did and that didn’t magically save me from getting kicked off hormones for three years when just that happened. the scarcity of treatment options is amplified by the fact thatmost doctors are completely lacking in knowledge of trans-specific medical needs; this is why trans men aren’t getting pelvic exams  and why trans women aren’t getting their prostates (for y’all who have prostates) checked, and these both can have quite deleterious consequences.  no amount of “completely female” can protect any trans person from an inherently trans-exclusive medical system, a system that isn’t good for any of us but is specifically hostile to trans women and also insults us for reaching out to other people like us when maybe all we want is an understanding shoulder.  regardless of who you are, how cisnormative you look, or when you transition, trans people still have some specialized needs no matter what.

third of all, why are you assuming this girl wants genital surgery, Ms. Wilchins? why are you using language like “with the right surgeon” when you yourself have groused in the past about the game of ‘my surgeon is better’? i really feel like these just aren’t the words of the woman who wrote Queer Theory, Gender Theory…it sounds like Just Jennifer edited your work. i don’t really even know what to make of the implications that she might not tell her partner, as disclosure is an extremely personal and individual matter that should not be subject to discussion by anyone else. that said, i know damn well that given that everything from the legal status of a marriage to disapproval from other trans people depends on disclosure, it’s fairly likely that no matter what changes come to our world that a trans woman is probably going to be forced to disclose in a marriage whether she likes it or not. this is a product of living in a cisnormative world and culture, and what’s worse there is a significant implication on the part of Ms. Wilchins that this girl won’t experience the same kind of suffering that she did over being trans. now, Ms. Wilchins, i feel for you in that you suffered and i don’t want to disregard or diminish your pain, but the idea that our value has something to do with how much we have to fight is really troublesome. it sounds almost like the Roman Catholic ideal of betterment through suffering, and ignores that not all suffering is identical. i don’t make an endless deal of it, but i know the fact that i’ve been a girl/woman for my entire career of employment has a lot to do with why i’m in a lower social class: i got assigned pink-collar work from the get-go and am still trying to break out of pink-collar employment, which is hard even with a stack of degrees. i don’t think this makes me a better person or a worse person, but both the girl you’re talking about and i have that as part of our reality that our jobs will be and have been affected by that. does this make us better or worse? no. it just makes us different.

finally, about the whole “blocker babies” thing? it’s not a good buzzword, as it infantilizes girls and boys who are already living through the micromanagement that comes with transition, and it’s creating another class. i have a cousin who is also trans; unlike me, she was on a GnRH agonist (aka a “blocker”) and had to wait longer for hormones. the myth that blockers, which are really expensive in the US and excluded from many health plans, are the magical solution is…rather, well, inchoate.  GnRH agonists are not appropriate for intersex/ed children and teenagers with certain conditions, and especially in teenagers partway through a puberty they don’t really want, doctors often avoid blockers since “the damage is done”, what the first doctor my cousin went to told her…this is on top of the cost. at the time, my aunt’s insurance paid for GnRH agonists, but it doesn’t anymore, so my cousin would have been out of luck. also, there are a number of side effects like osteoporosis risk and they have been known to cause some unpleasant pelvic pain issues in trans men/boys on them. in other words, GnRH agonists aren’t going to work for everyone and the “blocker babies” categorization is unnecessary.

this year, i attained 35  years on earth and a few months later 22 years of getting my gender something-close-to-right. i am considered to be “other” by the trans community for my appearance, my experiences, and silly things like how i dress and not knowing enough other people who are trans so i must be an outsider, a wonderful self-fulfilling prophecy. i don’t want to be special, i don’t want to be different, i just want to be like everyone else. articles like Ms. Wilchins’, despite the best of intent, end up marginalizing those of us with different experiences even worse. the idea that people who transition after puberty will be “dinosaurs” erases people without families that will let them transition (which you should not conflate with “supportive” families), it erases people who are still going to discover they’re trans* later in life, and it erases the reality that even if you deal with your gender issues in your teens, you’re still transsexual. the “dinosaur” lament might be how you feel looking at this girl…i’d rather feel like i take great joy in a life less constrained and limited by who she is. maybe if we stopped drawing lines between us, maybe if we can learn to see what we have in common, maybe things can get better for all of us.

but the only dinosaur i see here is on the TV, since we’re watching Dinosaur Train (i’m babysitting)…and if you want to wear that sky blue dress, Ms. Wilchins, i’m right behind you…heck, you can even borrow my tiara. because being what you are, there is no other Troy for you to burn.

December 7, 2012

my quilt, myself: body image, body policing, and our selves

trigger warning: this post contains content related to self-harm, violence, and rape and uses an ableist slur in reference. 

i don’t really find myself looking in the mirror all that often, but the other day i was talking to someone about dealing with self-abuse recovery and i idly wanted to catalog for my mind what the sources of my various scars were.  i know someone who photographed all her scars and told the stories about them, but i just wanted a personal “scar catalog” if you will. i spent a good 30 minutes, drawing a picture in my diary and coloring in where my scars were…most of my scars, it turns out, are not the ones i made, but the ones other people made for me with reasons sinister, benign, or outright depraved. it actually helped me feel a lot less bad about myself because i can’t really blame self-injury for anything worse than a couple of dime-sized nasties and a well-hidden three-inch slash. the story i told myself that most of my scars were my own fault was just that: a story.

i’ve been doing a lot better about not self-harming to the point that i don’t have to live in a house without any non-serrated blades and i don’t have to live in fear of what happens if i get to a place where i’m not somehow mentally stimulated, which is often where the troubling thoughts roll in, i lose control,  and the cutting starts. i know how to focus on other things. i still know exactly where the box cutter is, just like a recovering alcoholic knows exactly where to buy their favorite brand of whiskey…but much like the recovering alcoholic, i generally don’t feel the pull and when i start feeling it, i know how to fight it. the power over the need, the compulsion to self-harm was terrifying at first but now it increasingly feels like second nature. and i’m proud to tell you i haven’t cut in six weeks as of yesterday.

i used to joke that i was made out of spare parts. i don’t know who my “biological” father or mother are, and between a pretty significant skin graft to create genitalia and all the places i’ve been burned, cut up, and stitched up, i look like a quilt, a girl made out of the things lying around.  i have enough scars in enough weird places that i can’t go through one of those nasty TSA body scanners without ending up getting strip-searched, because some “security expert” decided that scar tissue is somehow a threat to the security of American airspace.

i feel like the threat in scar tissue is the threat of the unknown and the different. it produces revulsion from some and interest from others, and having scars in strange places is intensely interesting to someone whose job is to enforce normalcy and keep out bodies that don’t match expectations through shame, fear, and outright hate and/or incompetence…which is exactly what the TSA does. they seek to define things as “other” and humiliate and waylay them…it’s a lovely metaphor for how able-bodieds behave around disabled bodies, by pushing us into edge categories like the undefined other, a concept defined by Clapton and Fitzgerald in The History of Disability: a History of Otherness, which boils down much of the fear of disabled people to the idea that we are somehow being punished by God and that the person who declares us insufficient is just going along with the concept that because of our bodies we deserve it and that they are doing the will of society, the will of God, what have you. this is often what people who murder their disabled children cite: that God wanted us to be dead, that we somehow deserved what we had coming. my mother tried, not coincidentally on both of her disabled female children. i guess God couldn’t have wanted us dead too much or it would have worked. much like the man who raped me and told me no one would ever fuck me again once he was done burning me inside and out, i guess he was wrong, too. but in those cases, like all the others, i still live with the literal and metaphorical scars on my vessel and in my mind alike.

it leads to it being really hard to love this damaged vessel i live in. for all i am a chirpy riot grrl who believes all these things about how society shouldn’t be telling me what i’m supposed to do with my body, i’m sort of a hypocrite: i don’t look in the mirror because i’m afraid i’ll hate what i see. i struggle with appearance stuff, mostly around mundane stuff like acne but also because i sometimes fear what people perceive.  i also look radically different since i got back on hormones and quit trying to be white and i’m terrified that maybe i’m just trying to remake myself because i hate myself. and, well, i do hate myself, in that way that you hate that ex who loves you when she’s drunk but punches you when she’s sober. i have an uneasy peace with myself, and partially because i’m trying to figure out who and what Erica is, i actually have somewhat backed off that hate. i think it’s like when you know that ex is moving out sometime soon you start to feel a little bit better about her. i’m learning to be comfortable with this quilt, with its flaws, limitations, and differences… but there’s one little problem and that’s body policing.

i always feel like my body, my quilt can never be sufficient in any context where it’s known i’m trans. this is actually my dire fear about coming out more generally… i know that all the things ignored when people assume that i’m cis will suddenly be used to assail my gender. my broad, sturdy shoulders, my height, my big hands, and yes, the fact that i am not skinny will all will be thrown at me. i love my hands; they’re strong and pretty and give me an amazing ability to catch things. i love how tall i am, because growing up without exposure to other trans people gave me no complex about being tall and i was always admired and looked up to for being tall, so much so that my last year of high school, when i wasn’t the tallest girl in school anymore, i started wearing elevator shoes, a habit i continue to this day. and yeah, i love being curvy because that’s what feels right to my mind and my body is shaped in a manner once respected in women before being thin at all costs became how we were “supposed” to behave, and yeah…i like being able to carry things with the place of one hand taken by my hip, too. i don’t want another body, i just want to not be hated for the one i have. i don’t want to be degendered because my body is somehow insufficient for a trans woman when it was just fine when you thought i was cis. being trans shouldn’t mean that you have to be held to higher standards…i mean, after all, isn’t this where gatekeeping and cis people passing judgment on the worth of our lives and whether we should be allowed medical access comes from?

because once it’s known you’re trans, everything changes. people suddenly have dominion over your body and people pass judgment on the tiniest details that nobody cared about before. there are people who engage in appearance-based hate inside and outside the trans community, from Andrea James’ inexplicable habit of engaging in size/appearance-shaming to Cathy Brennan’s constant stream of sizeist/ableist/transphobic bullshit and you’ve got that last hurdle i just can’t jump: that now that i am trying to learn not to hate my body, i really don’t enjoy that it is only found to be “not good enough” and wanting when someone knows that i’m trans. all those “terrible flaws” never came up when you were assuming in error that i must be cis…i mean, seriously, the worst thing i get called in public is “retard”.  in other words, the special bonus body policing that comes both from people outside the community who hate us and people inside the community who have some interesting phobias lead to the reality that the only safe way to avoid being shamed is to let the assumption continue that i’m cis. but…i don’t want to keep pretending to be cis, but i also don’t want to be shamed when i’m trying to believe i am anything other than a monster who deserves what the world has handed her, and frankly i don’t ever want to start thinking that again because by believing that i believed i would never be worth anything better than pity. believing that didn’t make me a monster, but it made me a weak, aimless zombie who wasn’t even all that good of a person. it let my self-loathing be taken out on other people, something that i will never be able to apologize enough for. it let people think that i was ashamed of being trans when now i know i am anything but, but most of all…it let people believe they had a right to control me, and i believed that’s all i deserved. i believed i was meant to be ruled, i was meant to follow orders, and no more. that person was pitiable, but for the record…i neither want nor deserve your pity.

see, i don’t want pity, i want humanity. i want to accept that i may well be monstrous but though that monstrousness is part of me, i am not a monster. i want to live up to the promise of that scared little girl who pretty much sold her soul to be allowed to transition and was sternly told she should never tell anyone what she was (using those exact words, “what you are”) but the “man who will marry her someday.” i want to live up to the promise of that scared little girl walking across a scary bridge every day, summer and winter, so she could go to a better school where she wouldn’t be put on a failure track because she was disabled. and most of all, i don’t want to screw it up for the person i’m becoming, because at this point i’m living this life for her and not for other people or conditional and/or tentative approval that’s never coming. i am me-in-progress, wrapped in this quilt, and though this quilt isn’t perfect, this quilt is mine and it’s the only one i have.