“The evening before you start this new job you have been offered,” I asked this brilliant trans-shaman, “going back to engineering as a woman, which would you rather do? Would you rather go to a great trans-pride rally, where you can get all pumped up about your bold choices, or would you rather go to Nordstrom with your mom and pick out the perfect shade of lipstick for the next day, so you can always go to the ladies to freshen it and feel your mom supporting you?”
Even though she had been speaking about how certain women disgust her, how she refused to surrender to stereotype, she knew the answer immediately.
You can’t build womanhood — or manhood, for that matter — with a Meccano set. Gender isn’t something you can bolt together with Erector set parts, nice little beams and washers, actuated like a machine. There is no pure logic to womanhood.
Gender is about social choices, not about concepts. Every social role we take on is about choices, and each of those choices demands certain obligations and delivers certain rewards. For example, if we choose to make nerd choices, we may be taken more seriously on technical issues, but if we choose to make hot choices, we may have more people interested in us.
I recently commented on a crossdresser blog, supporting the need to be out, saying that the key questions in LGBT life are how queer is too queer, how queer is not queer enough? A transsexual separatist dismissed my comment as my issue, saying that while lesbians had to decide outness, transsexual women only had to make a good life. Her transsexuality was a birth defect, not a gender deviance, and she knew how to draw the line between queer people and defective people using her own magical differential diagnoses.
How assimilated is too assimilated and how individuated is too individuated is the same question phrased in a broader parlance, or more essentially, how tame is too tame and how wild is too wild? This is the essential human challenge, because we all need to be both part of the group, fitting in as one of them with shared choices, and be our own unique self with our own unique skills, viewpoint and style. Assimilation and individuation aren’t either or choices, rather we always, always, always have to blend both.
For her first time going to work as a woman, this young shaman has to figure out how to face the world, the hundreds of women and men who share the workplace. She knows how she wants to be treated, knows what rights she wants to claim, but my question for her was different: what obligations was she prepared to assume? How was she willing to be one of the gals, both for other women and for men?
This was a harder question. The obligations of gender weren’t something she took easily, having been focused on deconstructing gender, of getting free of the obligations of manhood that she felt like a straitjacket around her heart. It was gender freedom she said she wants, gender freedom to be one of the gals.
Gender freedom doesn’t work that way. If you are free from the obligations of being one of the group, you are also free from the benefits of being one of the group. The rewards come with the obligations. Every woman knows that she has to both be unique, stand out, and be compliant, fit in, and make that balance in every moment.
If a woman rebels against high heeled shoes,
she should take care to do it in a very smart hat.
George Bernard Shaw
Shaman has been flirting with a hot butch cashier at a home store. Lots of texts and pictures and calls. Tonight is they are going to play hoops, and she suspects it might lead somewhere. But she also found out that hot butch still has a girlfriend in a fraying relationship.
“Conceptually,” she told me with moral imperiousness, “I don’t want to be in a triangle. I need to stand up for principle. But she is hot!”
“So,” I said, “you want to be with her because she makes you tingle, but you want to protect your heart, so it doesn’t get busted up.”
“Yeah, I suppose that’s what I mean,” she agreed, leaving her conceptual clarity
“Do you think you are the first woman who has those concerns?”
“No,” she said. “I guess this is pretty common in the lesbian community, where friends and lovers mix and relationships shift.”
“If you express that, do you suspect this woman will have heard it before. Who has she heard it from?”
“From other women.”
“And if she hears it from you, who will she think you are?”
“Yeah,” I agreed. Responding as a woman is something people expect of women. But do they expect it of us?
Young shaman has the conceptual basis for gender. But being a woman — or a man — isn’t a conceptual thing.
Man’s conclusions are reached by toil.
Woman arrives at the same by sympathy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“I know that,” she told me. “I feel the right answer. But I don’t trust it. I go with my head rather than my heart.”
Gotcha. When asked to say something about the experience of being trans in the world, I always used to tell the Gotcha joke.
Arnold Palmer is offered a match for a million dollars, and the only handicap is three Gotchas. On the first tee, just as Arnie is about to drive, his competitor grabs Arnie’s scrotum, squeezes very hard and screams “Gotcha!” at the top of his lungs. On the second green, just as Arnie is about to putt, the guy does the same thing. Arnie loses by six strokes and in the clubhouse, someone asks him how he could lose to that schmuck.
“Did you ever try to play sixteen holes waiting for the third Gotcha?”
When we are tense and scared of stigma, we don’t flow. We tighten up, get the yips, suffer from analysis paralysis. We are always waiting for the third Gotcha. This is why, as TBB likes to remind people, the ultimate trans surgery is pulling the stick out of your own ass.
Transpeople aren’t allowed to go through adolescence in the gender they know fits them, or at least we weren’t allowed to do that. That means we never got a chance to be one of the guys, one of the gals, to explore assimilation and individuation in the great petri dish of school, why we have to keep struggling with that years after others have it down.
There are gaps in our womanhood, gaps we often try to fill with conceptual thought, with old habits, with previous patterns, rather than with empathy and trust in our own nature. That’s why so many of us keep out tells, so that we don’t have to face that difficult moment when our gender shifts in the eyes of someone else, that moment we feel the ground shift under our feet.
A woman once wondered why I was disquieted with the idea of going into the garage as a woman. “Because,” I told her, “I am dreadfully afraid that my womanhood will break and people will dump on me.”
Transwomen, especially transwomen who transition later in life, often address this by simply not trusting their own womanhood. We hold onto old patterns to fill the gaps we have. This is one reason why I held onto my own androgyny, not demanding people see me as a woman, but rather as a man who isn’t at all stereotypically manly or fey.
That’s not enough for me anymore. It doesn’t allow me to communicate the power and beauty and grace of my own heart, doesn’t allow me to come from that empathy that makes connections.
How do we learn to trust the chick in our hearts, and not the experience of the Gotcha? How do we trust that if we make the choices of a woman, we will be accepted as a woman, and not just be dismissed as a freak? How do we take those gaps in our socialization and fill them with heart, not with habit?
Old defences die hard. We often fall back to rude training. Trusting that we don’t need them anymore and can instead, just assert our own nature, just trust our own heart, is really tough.
To stay in that zone, we have to stay hot, trusting that others can see us as we know ourselves to be.
That’s why Shaman Gal knows that she would rather have her mom help her pick out the perfect lipstick for her first day at work as a woman, knowing she has her mom’s blessing as a talisman in her purse, her mother’s affirmation as a presentation on her lips.
She knows that being more clear about the conceptual basis for gender may be good, but it doesn’t really help her to trust making the choices of a woman as she meets her new colleagues. She knows that it’s staying hot and coming from her heart that will show her womanly nature much more than demands, knows that she wants to be both unique & special and be one of the gals.
For me, having to spend almost two hours going through these challenges is also interesting. To consolidate your own learning, teach. That’s why mothers who help daughters learn to be women have the chance to understand their own gender and gendering in a more objective way, to offer a considered and mature viewpoint.
ShamanGal wants to know how I know all this stuff. TBB wants to know why I don’t live all this stuff that I seem to know so well.
And I want these weeks of hot and humid weather to be over.
Then, maybe, I can go through my lipsticks once again.