Sweet Power

"So, do you you want to be powerful or powerless?"

"Isn't there a third answer?"

What is the power you desire in the world?

What is the responsibility and obligation you dread in the world?

What are you willing to stand for and what are you willing to stand against?

These are the questions of a human life, although most of us submerge these issues of power and responsibility in other stories, stories of desire, belief, attraction, family and potency.

A life without agency, without the power to be seen, heard and valued in a way that affects our community in a meaningful way, just sucks.  The power to get others to do what we need and want to be done, to join with them to manifest needs and dreams, is fundamental to being human.

We all want power.   We all want to minimize the price we have to pay to get power.   And that means we usually don’t want to have to admit that we seek power in the world, instead wanting to be seen as polite, appropriate, and demure.

We want, in other words, that choice between powerful and powerless, that magical place where people do what we need and desire without our having to  appear to want what we want and work to get it.

We somehow want to be shy and coy and cute, to be lovable while also being strong enough to get the rewards, the affirmation and the change that calls us.  Empowerment may demand a willingness to engage in conflict, to speak up for ourselves, to face off against those who would erase and deny us, but we imagine doing that while also fitting in, while being one of the gang.  We want to be wild and tame, queer and assimilated, individual and embraced at the same time.

The ways we try and take power in the world are appropriate and nice, deeply supported by the proper value system, while the ways that “they” try to take power are oppressive, cracked and sick. (1998)

"Men and women take power in very different ways. 

"How have you, as a part of your gender shift, shifted the way that you take power in the world?"

The intersection of gender and power was on my mind in my first question at my first gender conference twenty three years ago, and it was the deep topic at yesterday’s “Transgender Lives” conference, the tenth annual produced by the Connecticut Trans Advocacy Coalition. 

For Kate Bornstein, talking about power is talking about sex, about the power of attraction and desire.   The power she dreamed of is cute, a kind tiny performance grounded in anorexia, while the power she knows the power of the freak, drawing enough attention to stop traffic, she assured her audience that her quest to become a sexy woman has been long and successful, at least in her own terms.

All through the conference the line between empowerment and abjection flickered and danced.    Are transpeople powerful because we are really just like everyone else or are we powerful because we are bold and queer, unique in the world?   Does our power come from standing on the politically correct side of expression or does it come from using laws to demand what we need and want?  Are we sweet and desirable, abject and broken or powerfully individual?  Maybe, somehow, we are all of those things at once.

For every transperson, the struggle to take power in the world is at the heart of their own journey.   Yet, the struggle to make that quest for power appear other than being egotistical, demanding, isolating and cracked leads us to not talking directly about empowerment.

To seek power in and of itself seems to set us apart, make us less lovable and less human.

As humans, we rationalize most about the choices we make to take power in the world, writing off what we do for agency and affirmation with the best rationales we can generate.   Even therapists feel the need to set bounds based on their own sense of appropriateness, their own fear of separation from a community whose affirmation they need.

What we do for love, not just the love of others, but for the love of our own desires, dreams and calling, drives us.  We dream and then we work to make those dreams come true in the world, learning how to shape our own desires while engaging the desires of others.

I have taken power in my personal, inner relationship with understanding and spirit.   Though committing to a hermetic life of service and discipline, laced with strong doses of therapy that lead to vision, I have found my own power away from social conventions that seem to erase me, demanding that I deny my own power in flavor of playing games that demand I negotiate others fears.

For one moment on the drive to Hartford, though, with visions of Julia Davis’ brilliant Camping series in my mind, the intense tale of three couples exchanging power on one weekend trip to the countryside, I started to imagine taking other kinds of power in the world.

Could I use glamour as power in the world, my own seductive attraction drawing people into my circle?   Like so many other transwomen, I dreamed of being desirable, though every one of my personal dreams had to face the spinning buzzsaw of Aspergers parents who tore through feelings as if they were toilet paper.

What humans do for love is beyond any rational understanding. (2006)  We need what we need and desire what we desire, even if that wish is to be desired, to be seen, understood and valued for our own unique contributions.   We struggle to be mirrored, to have ourselves reflected in the world.

The struggle to claim power in the world, to get what we need, the love, the respect, the potency, the agency that is denied because of our queer hearts is at the heart of the transgender experience.

How can we really engage that quest, though, when even acknowledging that desire for power squicks other people, bringing up their own fears of loss, isolation and manipulation?   How do we get past the rationalizations and engage the manifest power within us?

How do we trust our own unique and intense glamour?