I am a huge proponent of positive identity. I think it’s much more important that you know who and what you are than knowing who and what you are not.
That’s not a usual approach in this culture. In my experience, when asked about their trans identity, most people start by telling you who they aren’t. Last night, for example, one gal said she was against the binary, a code that she doesn’t really identify as a man or a woman. Great, but who or what does she identify as?
So many people know that they aren’t transgender, aren’t a drag queen, aren’t a crossdresser, aren’t a man, aren’t a queer, whatever, but do they know who they are? Or is their identity just a shadow, a reaction to some other identity that they need to reject?
None of this is really surprising. Growing up trans is growing up individual in a world that wants to paste a label on you, a challenge to reject the categories and labels foisted on you. We know people make assumptions, throw us into groups that are wrong and confining, and that is something we very much want to reject. We are not just one of those kinds of people, we are ourselves.
The reason this is an issue for me is because my identity as my parent’s caregiver is gone now. No longer am I some kind of functionary merely toiling in the propose of giving my father and my mother one more good day. No longer does my old uniform of jeans and a polo shirt, sometimes topped with a quarter-zip fleece, still fit.
I am stripped. And I have to step in the world in a new way.
I have to speak for myself, as my father told me on his deathbed.
And when I start to reassemble that new incarnation, I find myself slipping back into all of those negative identity issues.
I know what I would love to be seen as, but I am too old, too big, my body too maled, and my experience too bruised to ever slide easily and seamlessly into the role of woman. That still breaks my heart, even after 35 years of struggle.
Yet I do know that many other women of transgender experience are living powerful, potent and harmonious lives as women. And I also know that when I look in the mirror, me in my clothes of choice makes much more sense, offers much more opening for happiness than my drab invisibility. There is a glimmer of possibility of me connecting with people in a more expressive, more exposed, more vulnerable and more beautiful way.
The eyes are the portal to the soul, and watching eyes tells you more about a person than most other things, and my eyes are the eyes of a femme lesbian. Someone was putting makeup on me for a television production back in the 1970s, when she said “Your eyes are so beautiful. Too bad you aren’t a woman, who can wear makeup.” I agreed with the sentiment, even if I said nothing. Leslie Feinberg talks about how Minnie Bruce Pratt was always losing sunglasses because she couldn’t imagine talking with them on, and that’s when I started looking at the eyes, instantly being able to tell how femme someone was by the expressiveness in their eyes.
But I am realizing that I still hold a bunch of negative identity issues, of ways that I hate being seen. Mostly, I guess, these are centred around having other people see me as a man. I don’t get upset when people acknowledge that I went through puberty as male, that I am male bodied, because that’s true. But when they use that fact to assign me a gender, that’s painful. “They deny your own expression of self,” said a nun who understood my point. “Can you hear over my penis?” I used to ask, even as I knew it was my old maled bones and other bits that gave them the noise.
I wrote about this 14 years ago now in The Guy-In-A-Dress Line, and the issue is still the same today. So many transpeople assigned as male at birth or soon thereafter, who went through puberty as males, don’t want to give up manhood or don’t want to claim womanhood, maybe because they see that claiming as impossible. Since I wrote that piece, the layer of people who feel they can reject gender, especially transpeople assigned as female at birth or soon thereafter, has grown.
I don’t really want to be out of gender. But I know that the best I can every be is an immigrant to womanhood, not a native born and raised woman. And since womanhood is also defined negatively in many ways — “We are not like those men!” — that makes my position treacherous. I can’t reject manhood, mostly because of my mission statement: “In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.”
My identity isn’t about satisfying women of my commitment by sacrificing my blood and my voice, my identity is about saying it is the content of our character, not the shape of our skin that defines us as human.
“There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t,” says Robert Benchley’s Law of Distinction. Last night, with three young transpeople in a meet and greet, I felt I was dismissed with their own version of this law, “There are two kinds of people in the world, those who reject the binary and those who don’t.” To be for the binary or to be against the binary is to affirm the reality of the binary; the only way out is to move beyond the binary to individual expression.
As humans, binaries are hard to let go of, which is why I owe such a debt to queer theory, which demanded that I affirm others for their consensual choices and acts without demanding that I first agree or disagree with those choices. It’s one path I have to embracing continuous common humanity, just trusting the stories of others and knowing that they will show the connection that always exists.
My challenge today is to figure out who Callan, who Cali really is, so I can just go and be her in the world without fearing the assumptions and labels others foist onto me. After all, the only way to get past those quick assumptions is engagement, and if I shrink from engagement because I shrink from those assumptions, I just end up shrunken and alone.
I can’t let myself be stopped by the binaries that people will slap onto me, even those I dismiss for myself, even those I know to be wrong and find unpleasant to consider. I just have to trust that as I show myself in fullness, those assumptions will fall, and I will be seen as someone more whole and human, someone worthy of love, respect and support.
In other words, I have to choose love, not fear.
Easier said than done.