Trans, Powershift & Agency

On my first morning at my first transgender conference, twenty one years ago now, I was jittery as I walked through the hotel.

I’d been out for about eight years then, but with the identity of a “guy-in-a-dress,” reaching for androgyny, for the integration of the masculine and feminine while presenting as a man with my given, masculine name.  That’s how people in my area knew me, even as they rejected that identification for themselves, preferring the old separate transvestite / transsexual / drag models.

Today, though, I was here under my new name, moving towards a new identity.   I was acknowledging that “man” was never something I was good at, even if I had cobbled together an iconoclastic nerd presentation that allowed me to function in public as a man, though not really in the bedroom where I was a femme lesbian through and through.

The first session I went to was a panel hosted by three differently identifying transpeople.  TBB was there, talking about her perspective as a married crossdresser with kids.  You know how my relationship with TBB worked out.  She just called me from Italy where she is travelling with her beautiful daughter, a grad student in chemistry, chasing down their ancestry.

Holly Boswell spoke about the role she was living, the one she summed up in her famous “The Transgender Alternative” essay.    Holly and I became very close for a long time after that day.

Renèe Chevalier was there to speak about her identity as a post-operative transsexual.   Renee had been the married crossdressing president of my local transgender support group when I first came out, and she immediately identified read out my guy-in-a-dress identification from the panel, saying that I had helped her learn a lot about transgender expression.  My first day, 750 miles from home, and my history was outed in my first session.   I knew better than to try and hide it.

I had one question for the panel.

“Men and women take power in very different ways.   As you shifted your gender identity, how did you shift the ways that you take power in the world?”

I got three answers, from TBB commenting on the difference she saw between crossdressers  and transsexuals in a social situation, from Holly talking about working to stay balanced and from Renèe about how she was a woman now and that was it, no matter what her ex-wife said.  (Renèe’s crossdressed marriage renewal was featured in Mariette Pathy Allen’s book Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them, and I learned a great deal from her born-female wife.)

“Men and women take power in very different ways.   As you shifted your gender identity, how did you shift the ways that you take power in the world?”

Shifting gender requires shifting the way we take power in the world.  I knew that then, but didn’t know how to make that work.   I still don’t.

I don’t take power like a man not only because I don’t want to be seen as a man, but also because it doesn’t feel right to me.   I was rubbish at being cocky when I was trying to be a man and today, well, cockiness escapes me.

I don’t take power as a woman because I know that my woman identity is disquieting to others, that seeing both my expression and my biology can make them nervous.   I neither have the deep and long experience of being treated like a woman in the world, nor do I have the safety to know that my  standing cannot be attacked in a moment.

The practical upshot of this division is that I just don’t take power in the world.  I don’t believe that I have the agency to be effective in negotiating the minefield of gender.  I feel the years of abuse and scarcity on my heart.

What I have learned to do is modulate myself rather than to assert myself in the world.  I continue to not have an effective model of gender shift that includes effective power shifting.   I end up modulating and I end up being under nourished and under nurtured.

This thread of struggling to find a way to assert power and agency in the world while not falling into gender conventions that erase continuous common humanity, finding a way to be powerful that still allows one to be vulnerable and nurtured in the world is the thread that laces all though my journey and my writings about my experiences.

Creating a performance that works well without too much damn work to modulate myself to slip through the fears, expectations and borders that other people maintain around opposites of gender & sex is, frankly, a killer.

I know how to be an iconoclast.   I have learned to modulate, to package myself up cute, to be professional, to not push into areas that make people too crazy, too uncomfortable, too nervous.   I have learned how to read individuals as an audience, how to know when I am just being incomprehensible to them, when they are just replacing my narrative with their own expectations, leaving a blank sheet.

I know how to be an imperfect woman, a warrant woman, how to stand proud and do the work.   But just being happy and safe, feeling affirmed and lovable in the world rather than feeling like a porcupine?  Not so much.

My experience of my life isn’t some generic experience.  It’s not one thing or another, one category or the opposite that leaves me where I am today.  It’s just my human experience.

And recapping this essential challenge I have been struggling with since I came out?

Well, I could do worse for my 1500th published post on this blog.