Tell Me

It surprised me the first time I met Kate Bornstein.  I had read Gender Outlaw in the parking lot of the bookstore on the day they called me to tell me it arrived.  To me, Kate was saying new things about moving beyond assumptions, against the old Benjamin/Prince models, things I needed to hear, seeds that might grow pride.

“When are you scheduled for surgery?” Kate asked me when we first met, some 14 years ago now.   When I said that I hadn’t planned on surgery, she immediately assumed that I must be a crossdresser, and wanted to get to know Veronica Vera.

Magical Kate, and there it was: the TV/TS binary almost the first thing out of her mouth.   I have seen Kate in many garbs and guises since then, the life of a metamorph, and we both have moved a long way.

Goblyn Queenne notes that only trannys are rude enough to ask her about the shape of her genitals, at birth or currently.   Others just want to know about her choices, her role, her desires, her life.

I never ask transpeople about how they fit into some matrix any more.  Yeah, I want to know who they are & who and what they love, but I don’t think their experience of genitals tells me very damn much about them, any more than knowing about someone’s genitals tells you about them.

It’s an old teaching I use; if I tell you the shape of someone’s genitals, what can you tell me about them?  Can you tell me who they love?  Can you tell me if they cook well?  Can you tell me how tall they are?  We may have all these stereotypes about penised vs. non penised people, and they have some truth; penised people are usually taller than non-penised people, for example.  But using those stereotypes to know something about any individual is impossible.  Some people identified as male are 5′ 1″ and some people identified as female are 6′ 3″   That’s what trans is about to me, accepting people as individuals, not as extensions of some assumptions about group features.

So when I meet a new transperson, I don’t ask them to tell me where they fit in some context I have.   Instead, I just ask them to tell me a story.

It’s when I listen to someone’s narrative about what they consider important or interesting or funny that I learn about who they are by hearing the choices they make in telling me their story.    Admittedly, their story may be about “op-status” or some such, but when they tell me that, I know about where they are now.

Today, when I start to hear someone start by explaining the difference between crossdressers and drag queens and transsexuals and such, I just leave the room.   They are almost always explaining this differential diagnosis not to tell you who they are, but rather to tell you who they are not.  “I’m not one of those damn _______” goes the cry, and when I hear that cry, I know that this is someone who does not yet know who they are, only who they want to be, and that means as much as a fart in the dark.  It may give you a sense of where they are now, but contains not one whit of useful narrative.

We are stories, we humans.  The biggest gift we ever get is the gift of symbolic language, of the ability of recounting experiences, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, imagination and desire to others through symbols.  We don’t just shape our stories — in fact, few humans move to consciously shaping story — but are shaped by our stories, the stories we are issued, the stories we grab onto, the stories that justify and rationalize our choices, the stories that clothe our deepest dreams.

So don’t tell me your experience, or how you fit into some matrix you heard once.

Tell me your story, and by that I will begin to know you, starting where you follow the contours of culture and where you cross those lines.

I am the shadows my words cast, as Octavio Paz said.  And I think that you are the shadows your words cast, even if that scares you, and you want to be your claims, your carefully shaped resume, your projected illusions, want to shout down those who offer a glimpse of something you try to hide in your own expression.

You are human.  You are your stories, with all their contradictions and ambivalence,  because your stories reflect your choices, and your choices are based in your stories.

So tell me that, and by that you may be seen.

Even if that scares you.