When you build a gender from scratch, starting at the beginning, you have the luxury of creating it out of whole cloth, fluid and seamless.
Your gender education goes along with your growth, layering experience into the warp of your life. You have the support and context to create the right levels, one year building on each other. You are first, for example, a sweet girl, then a tomboy, then you are a romantic in love and then you have a period of exploration where you experiment with a whole range of possibilities and parties before you enter the demands of an adult.
For transpeople, though, we end up having to tear apart the gender we have built, needing to rip out the parts that do not fit us, then have to replace those parts with other bits of gender expression we have created later. These additions are never as strong, never as graceful and never as seamless as a gender expression that was formed through phased, supported experiences.
Our gender ends up being in tatters, ragged and threadbare. There are bits that don’t fit that we couldn’t figure out how to replace with new, and gaps where our elegance stops to be patched with fear and terror. Like a model who looks good from the front, in the places where you shouldn’t see, our gender is held together with safety pins and clothes pegs, gathered and cinched, gapped and torn in the best way that we can make do.
Since the transgender journey is such a solitary one, we don’t have the kind of feedback and shared creation that most people have when constructing a gender expression. Most people around us have already gone through what we need to do, can’t imagine building a life out of time and linearity, miss the costs and challenges in reweaving a life. They see our shabby patchwork, full of holes and scabbed in bits and it baffles them.
Every transperson understands the cost, the loss of being denied gendering which fits their heart along with their peers. They watched people around them doing the work that called them but were instead struggling to get into a gender that didn’t fit them, a gender that required massive amounts of denial and hiding. Being shamed into the closet, we lost the opportunity to grow in a healthy progression, binding our heart rather than blossom in it.
For many of us, we will never have the opportunity to experience our gender expression in a relaxed, safe and healthy way. Our bodies bear the marks of our puberty, leaving us visibly trans in the world and always waiting for the third gotcha. We can’t just assimilate into a gender that fits us because there is always a trap, someone who can’t value the shape of our heart over the shape of our birth genitalia. We try to weave new and then feel our work ripped apart by a world that clings to binaries, to convention, to limits.
Every gender expression has appliques and repairs, but most start with whole cloth. Transpeople are patchwork dolls, having remade ourselves in the best way we know how, but always suffering from being created out of time and process, from being stitched out of what we can find, from having gaps or bits that will never smoothly fit into our design.
We create a life that is always in tatters, never quite complete, always in need of recreation and mending. It is, though, still our own handmade life, full of character and the kind of direct ownership that only a bespoke expression can be. Rather than struggling to fit into an off-the-rack gender expression, we have to make our own, for good or for bad.
Usually this means that parts of our creation are breathtaking, perfect and elegant, while other bits are torn, tattered and raw. It is the best we can do, never perfect, but always a brave attempt.
Gender is always collage, taking bits from all over, but when you have to do it out of time, not weaving it in order but having to go back, pick out the wrong and kludge in the better, always facing the limits of retrofitting a life, tatters are sure to be part of the work.