To be honest, I kind of like trans women a lot more than I like most people.
Sorry, everyone else.
This is not to say that I haven’t had more than my fair share of awful experiences with trans women. More so than anyone else, we know how to hurt each other, and more than anyone else, we have a whole boatload of motives for doing so.
I’ve been to the support groups. I’ve been held to the standards. I’ve been given the lectures. I’ve been offered the unsolicited advice- on “passing”, on “acting like a woman”, on fitting into the narrative, on what surgeries I should or shouldn’t have done, on my voice, my language, my occupation, my interests, my sexuality. I’ve received a thousand offers for “help” all acting as coded messages for who is or isn’t allowed into the inner sanctum of acceptance within the community. And I’ve even been invited to sit at the cute, pretty, young, femme, binary girls’ table, as the older women, the visibly gender variant women, the non-binary women, the women with disabilities (physical or mental), sat apart from us, diverting the negative attention. I know that more often than not, “support” and “help” are code for control, limitation, self-denial, and submitting to external expectations. Everything I viewed myself as transitioning away from.
I’ve also been attacked, cut down, trolled. When shitty transphobic things happen to me, more often than not, it’s trans women who take the opportunity to tell me how I brought it on myself. By not passing well enough, by living in the wrong neighbourhoods, by not being able to afford the right breakfasts. It’s trans women who’ve told me that clearly disclosure is only an academic issue for me, that it’s totally understandable that I use a cartoon avatar, that my work is tepid and forgettable, that I don’t contribute anything of value to anyone, and that it’s a mystery why anyone reads it. Rad-scum and trolls and the ERVites have all made attempts at hurting me, sure, but they’re usually just hilariously inept. But trans women? They know how to cut to the bone. And they do.
And I’m repeatedly disappointed in our community. I’m disappointed in how casually people will maintain their transier-than-thou “I always knew with absolute certainty!” narratives, even when its obviously false, and extremely damaging to those still in the early, frightened, doubt-ridden phases of their transitions. I’m disappointed in how readily we position the “leaders” of our community as being above question. I’m disappointed in how the dominant narratives are so incredibly controlled by those who are white, binary, able-bodied, without intersexual histories or bodies, middle-class, transitioning within a specific period of their lives. I’m disappointed in how other kinds of narratives are, at best, ignored, or at worst, exploited so as to help market our own agendas to the mainstream, or outright stated to be invalid, impossible, or lies if they don’t happen to fit into people’s expectations for what trans histories are supposed to be. Like how this past week, as my friend Erica’s post about having survived a trans-orbital lobotomy made the rounds at reddit, she was repeatedly accused by other trans women of having made the whole thing up, on nothing more substantial than their claim that “that simply doesn’t happen”. Or how Zoe Brain is repeatedly met with similar accusations of lying about her intersex condition and the history of her body because that also “simply doesn’t happen”.
I’m disappointed with the fact that I get a lot more attention and readers than dozens of at least as talented trans-feminist writers due to what appears to only be the simple fact that my narrative fits just cozily enough into what people expect a trans narrative to look like.
I’m disappointed with how we expect ourselves to be perfect and amazing in order to have any worth or value at all.
I’m disappointed with how we constantly cut each other down to make ourselves feel just a little bit less ashamed of our own identities. “Sure, I may be a freak, but at least I’m not as much of a freak as those freaks over there.”
And I’m disappointed in how we often won’t even let ourselves own our own anger, pain and hurt. Because someone else has it worse. Or we’ll alienate allies. Or transition was already a “selfish” thing to do anyway. Or we don’t want to hurt anyone. And God, you know, we’re just so sorry we ended up trans in the first place. Forgive us!
But none of that changes the fact that when I think about who my closest friends are, who the people I love most in the world, who I most enjoy spending time with and talking to, who I feel at home around, who I feel like I could spend a lifetime just walking around in their ideas, perspectives and experiences, who I want to fight for and who makes any of anything worth doing anything about… it’s trans women.
A few weeks ago I was chatting with some twitter friends about the terms we use to describe the conditions and qualities that define transgenderism, specifically the word “atypical”, and how we could describe the fact that these conditions and qualities are rare, relative to those that define cisgenderism, without implicitly positioning ourselves as abnormal, unnatural, aberrant, a problematic deviation from a script. Although certainly rare, the conditions that produce queerness (homosexuality, intersexuality, transgenderism, etc.) are a natural, normal aspect of the system of sexual differentiation that human beings evolved. They come part and parcel with that system and all the advantages it confers on our species. But in order to be able to talk about it, we do need to be able to talk about the way that these qualities result from variations from the more common manner in which sexuality and gender develop in an individual. How do you do that without devaluing ourselves?
The word I ultimately decided to settle on, in place of “atypical”, “abnormal”, “rare” or “variant”, was “extraordinary”.
I think that’s a big part of why I adore other trans women so much. What I adore is absolutely not the community as a whole. I fight for that community, but damn would I love to see them doing a better job of fighting for themselves, ourselves, each other, and those who should be members of it but are unjustly excluded. When positioned as a whole, “the community”, all those individual little bits of extraordinariness get lost in the shuffle, mixed into a sort of gray, goopy, lowest-common-denominator mass of most-common-characteristics… which by definition erases exactly the thing I love so much about individual trans women. That individually, we’re extraordinary.
Perhaps that fondness I feel is a byproduct of pretty natural biases. That I would of course feel a greater sense of connection with people who resemble me in their experiences. But the truth is that when speaking of individual trans women, it’s in fact intensely difficult to find commonalities. As a group defined precisely by variance, we are an almost hilariously varied group. Do you know how incredibly rare it is for me to meet other trans women who identified as gay men, like I did? Who are recovered IV-drug addicts? Who had intersex aspects to their bodies? And when you take all the elements that comprise an individual narrative, how we’re cut off from anything resembling the “universal” histories and socializations that even the illusion of which is exclusively the domain of the cisgendered (and otherwise privileged), we exist in a sad, lonely, but beautiful isolation… compulsively looking to other trans experiences to find whatever scraps of resonance we can with our own. We do find those resonances, but they’re isolated. To find someone “like” ourselves we’d need to assemble a sort of Frankenstein’s Monster creation from fragments of the histories of every trans person we’ve known. This is because we’re individual. Extraordinary.
In every single trans woman there’s such a lonely, beautiful history to be found. This can be said of almost all human beings, but it is particularly palpable amongst us trans people. Yesterday, in response to Stephen Ira tweeting that he wished he had a secret origin, I joked that ALL of us trans folk have our origin stories (mostly involving failed attempts at self-destruction). Every single one of us has a story to tell about when and how it was we made our choice. Maybe a squirrel distracted you from the razor blade for the twenty minutes it took in order for your friend to ultimately walk in on you in time. Maybe a shower rod broke from your weight, foiling your hanging. Maybe you nearly OD’d when a shady dealer accidentally sold you coke instead of heroin, and you realized you didn’t exactly want to die after all. Maybe you got beaten up so badly at recess one day that you decided you just didn’t care what anyone thought, they were going to hate you anyway, so you’d just go ahead and tell your parents what you really want to do and who you really want to be.
We all have our origin stories. And our secret identities. And super-powers. And sometimes even our own little Justice Leagues to hang out with.
And amongst our histories we also all have our tragedies. All the violence that has been done to us, all the ways our hearts have been broken, all the times our identities have been stripped from us and invalidated, all the friends and family who left, all the horrible things that people or society or we ourselves did to “cure” us, all the parts of our bodies we still feel dysphoric about or ashamed of and the parts we can’t change, all of our shame and loss and grief.
And from those tragedies, in each of us has emerged a survivor. Someone who’s made it through. Someone who’s been dealt at least a glimpse of the genuine pain that life is capable of meting out on a person (at random) and still, somehow, found strength and grace. Someone who continues to walk, breathe, talk, laugh, smile. I don’t care how down on herself a trans woman gets (and yeah, we can get really down on ourselves), she still has managed to pull herself through really awful things that can and do kill people. Even at her weakest, most ashamed, most vulnerable, a trans woman is still a fucking badass.
And those smiles we manage to pull off? Well, we each also have our joys. We all know what it is to decide the direction of your life for yourself. To claim the right to self-determination. To take a truly radical action, in genuine defiance of enforced normativity in the name of nothing more than your respect for your own identity and rights. We know what it means to actually embody that self-determination. To have our identity houses in a body that is enscribed with the act of saying that we are the ones who decide who we are, and who we are to be. We each remember all our little moments of validation, the times when people saw us, those first times we saw ourselves in the mirror and could feel okay with what was there reflected, those fumbling, awkward, scary but so intensely liberating first steps out into the world presenting an uncompromised self, the friends we made and the friends and family who stayed, the connections formed, the first glimpses of owning and knowing oneself. The first prescription in hand or the first time buying make-up or the first time having sex in the right kind of body or…well… it could be lots of things, since it’s all so intensely individual.
I could read another trans woman’s history forever and never stop finding it awesome.
But you know the fun thing about “extraordinary”? It doesn’t have to imply everything is perfect and okay. It goes beyond, or at least, outside of that. One of the things I find is that a lot of our individuality, a lot of what makes us extraordinary, is marked by how intensely fucked up we are.
I’m not going to sit here and pretend that trans women are all “functional” (suddenly occurs to me there’s a rather creepy undertone to that word, if you dig down… functional relative to what? What function? What for? People are tools. They don’t have functions). And I’m certainly not in any way going to suggest we exceed the capabilities, or overall “health”, of anyone else. To be brutally honest, the truth is that as a general rule, we’re all pretty messed up.
But perfection, normalcy, function, ordinaryness… these things are nice, but they aren’t very interesting or inspiring or beautiful. One of the things I most love about art, and one of the things I believe allows art to be beautiful, is that all of its uses come secondarily. Sure, maybe a work of art might help “communicate emotional states”, or “record the appearance of an individual or event”, or “bring visibility to minority concerns”, or “give voice to social justice movement X”, or “provide catharsis”, or whatever-the-fuck. But really, if these things are what you think art is about, you’re deeply, deeply missing the point. Art isn’t necessarily FOR anything. Art is there to be.
Human beings, and indeed life, is much the same way. Which is why “what is the meaning of life?” is such a bone-headedly stupid question. If you consider a deer in the forest, that deer may ultimately help graze the foliage, fertilize the soil, and ultimately provide a meal for a lynx while its remaining corpse feeds scavengers and, again, the soil… but NONE of those things are the “reason”, “use” or “meaning” for the deer. A deer is not a tool. And to the deer? It really couldn’t possibly care any less about any of that. The purpose of a deer is to be a deer.
And a human being? Well, yeah. We’re not here to be functional. Relative to our society and civilization (our very badly damaged and possibly completely hopeless society and civilization) a human being may have a function or role or whatever, sure. But that’s not why we’re here, as individuals. And when that society kind of doesn’t like you very much, kind of systematically excludes, ignores, oppresses, ridicules or enacts violence against you, well… why should any of us care about how functional we are?
Trans women, as completely, utterly messed up we are, are a bit like art. And a bit beautiful like art. Beautiful, non-functional, non-utilitarian, fantastically useless to the interests of mainstream society (which I really wouldn’t WANT to be useful to), confusing and weird and incomprehensible to that same society (and “threatening its foundations”!), perfectly imperfect, existing pretty much just for our own sake. There to be. Beautiful messes.
I want more from our community. A whole lot more. But the reason for that isn’t to help serve some greater cause for the good of society or whatever. I want that because I know we’re comprised of hundreds of thousands of absolutely fucking awesome, beautiful, badass women, who each, as individuals, are extraordinary and deserving of a whole lot better than what we’ve gotten. At the very least, we deserve to give each other better than we have been doing.
Maybe the first steps in that direction are our friendships. Our relationships on individual levels. If on that level, we can learn to see in one another all the incredibly awesomeness that’s there instead of just using each other as a mirror against which to assess our own flaws and shame, well… maybe from there we can work our way up to a more positive, beneficial, less destructive community.