Immigrant Costs

From the first trans support group meeting I ever attended, I found it easier to talk to the women born female than the very masculine people, no matter how they were dressed.

The premise of crossdresser societies was always the premise of masquerade; down deep they were really men, straight men, who loved women and were only playing at being one for the night.   They showed themselves as femiphiles by putting on the outward trappings of women, emulating females, or “femulating” if you will.

In those days, the transvestites were impressed with how much I sounded like a woman, assuming it was just a performance trick, in the same way that the Muppets Swedish Chef pretended to be Nordic.

The people raised as women, though, knew better.   They knew that I actually could speak woman, could engage in conversation, could understand and value what they shared, could respond in feminine and affirming ways.

I wasn’t a native speaker, though.   I didn’t share the kind of socialization and training that they had from their earliest days, never being initiated into the circle of women and not going through the same social experiences that they shared.

As an immigrant to woman, I got my cultural understandings like any other immigrant, though later immersion in the tales and tropes of the people around me.   I listened to stories, assimilated and integrated the values, learned the codes and rules, how to read the situation around me like a woman all at a kind of remove.

This kind of experience has always made me useful in groups of women where I can act as a kind of translator, bridging the knowledge by explaining in clear womanspeak the experience and viewpoint of non-women.  I can illuminate across cultural divides, like any immigrant.

But, like any immigrant, this role always feels dangerous to me.  When I do that, those around me might start to see me as other, as separate.   I can never simply go along with the group when they express shared identity by bashing others.  The bonding experience of discussing why men are fools, for example, isn’t one I can easily play in, rather I see foolishness across gender boundaries, deep in our continuous common humanity.

In each venue we have to make a choice: how much do we surrender our voice to the group to be accepted, how much do we speak for our own knowledge, and how much do we stay silent and invisible?   Too many converts feel the need to be zealous to prove their loyalty, but being ostracized from the group also disempowers us.

I was recently speaking to a gorgeous, 23 year old transwoman who now is very ensconced in the world of women as a hair dresser.  She loves having the support of other women in the shop, telling stories.   As a straight gal, someone who loves hard-working men, they have a shared outlook that is more difficult for me, who knows herself to be a femme lesbian.

There is a point, though, where that safe connection falters.   Her immigrant stories fall flat around other women because they just have never had to face what she has.

They don’t understand the fear which sweeps her, that waiting for the third gotcha which comes from a lifetime of knowing that her gender can slip and she can get slammed at any moment.

How can they understand the experience of trying to buy women’s jeans for yourself, never having had a mom who explained the challenges of sizing?   If you show your ignorance, you might reveal yourself and take a hit, but if you don’t, you end up just running away, staying scared and isolated.

Today, when trans is trendy — and she likes the idea that she has gone from trash to trendy in her short lifetime — she can skip the old demands of hiding her history from the world.   She tells clients on their second visit, while she has the foils on them, about her story, and they have to decide, right then, if this pretty, slim, bright and smiling woman with the husky voice is a threat.

Most of them get that she is worth trusting, maybe not just in spite of her unique history but instead because of it.   They are willing to assign her normativity, filling in their version of her history with their assumptions, letting her be just one of the gals.

She knows, though, that she will never just be one of the gals, even if others see her that way.   She will always be an immigrant to womanhood, someone with deep stories beyond the understanding and comfort of those who were socialized as normative women, never questioning their standing or performance, never having to face and own their own unique queerness.

I read, still, of transwomen who want to demand a kind of denial, saying, for example, that they were always female, just with a little birth defect.   They want their queerness to be erased, their story to be purged of all twists, because that allows them to assert standing without engaging their past.   They hope this will silence all their critics.

Erasing our history, though, takes away the best part of us, the power of wisdom across boundaries. They can give you anaesthesia when they cut off and reshape body parts, but the cost of having to deny truth and feeling, trying to wall it off is very, very high.  The ultimate trans surgery is pulling the stick out of your own ass and if you think that sounds painful, just imagine the cost of a life where you leave it in.

People don’t demand that you pass, Rachel Pollack said, but they do want you to be simple enough that they can assign normativity to you.    They don’t want your queerness, your history, your pain to get in the way of being in relationship with you, in business or just casually.

Trans is such an individual journey, though, that we can feel swamped by the baggage we carry, crushed by the price of attenuating and erasing our own stories to keep others comfortable.

Sure, we have assimilated, can be part of the group, but we are also immigrants, with the experience of a whole other life stored deeply within us.  Feelings come up for us, truth is clear to us all of which challenge the small and parochial circles of those who have only experienced one routine culture.

The immigrant experience is rich within us, but always in a solitary way, without the luxury of family and relations who shared our journey, who also stand across worlds.   We are pressed to eliminate our uniqueness, to lose our stories, to stay tight.

The cost of assimilation is high (2014), but as we create communities, we can stand not only as one of the crowd but also as a bridge between worlds. This has always been the power of those who cross borders, creating bridges and bringing vitality with their journeys.

But the price of being an lonely immigrant is always with us, somewhere in our liminal experience of this moment.