You can’t tell how queer someone is by looking at them. Trans is not, in the end, about outward expression, rather it is about inward knowledge and how we let that awareness influence our choices in the world.
A tabloid site published a photograph of the recently departed Alexis Arquette with a headline that she went back to being a man before she died. The photo did show her with no makeup, in a t-shirt and short hair, decorated by a yellow flower.
Does a woman stop being a woman when she gets painfully thin and loses her hair from chemo? In the days when we are challenged with disease, we often don’t take the time to focus on our appearance.
The image came from the Facebook page of an ex-lover who was with Alexis when she was living as a man. He saw the Alexis he remembered at that final lunch, I am sure, reading some reality that had always been in his brain. For many men, once you are born with a penis, well, that’s it, all the rest can be nothing but drag, just cheap “femulation.”
The tabloid wanted the clickbait of showing who Alexis really is, trumpeting that trans is just a phase, something that doesn’t exist except as a matter of appearance. They play into the binary assumptions of their readers, just as other media outlets did when they revealed that Alexis died of AIDS related complications, implying that she must have really, really been a gay man all the time.
While her brother also saw her shedding the cost of maintaining her trans appearance as a return to brother, the official statement called Alexis “she,” talked about bravery and noted that before she died she had seen the other side and there, people lived without the demands of binary gender.
John Waters refers to Divine as “he,” but women who knew Divine refer to her as “she.” One falls back on the comforting notion of biology & appearance, the other sees into the heart.
The family statement on Alexis says that he transitioned into being a woman. In my view, the feminine heart that was always inside of her emerged from behind the armour, expectations and conventions that she felt was imprisoning her. She did the hard work of getting clear and showing her trans nature in the world, presenting as a woman.
Is anyone really just who you see in this moment, or are they some kind of essence that runs through the time of their life? Does the role you hold them in define them, pin them, or are they always much, much more?
That barrista who hands you your coffee isn’t just a barrista, no matter how much that is the role they play in your life. A mom isn’t just a mom, no matter how much her children need to hold her in that role, and your brother, well, your brother is large and contains multitudes, even if they stay locked behind the role he is cast into.
What we can tell by looking at someone is very much limited not only by what they choose to show in the world but also by the assumptions we project onto them. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are, Anaïs Nin reminds us. The boundaries of what we are open to seeing constrain our world.
Transpeople often believe that transforming their appearance will transform everything, holding onto the old sexist notions that we are defined by our clothes or our bodies. Change those and we become new so people have to accept who we “really” are.
In a recent Rolling Stone article, Laura Jane Grace notes that five years in, changing her looks was the easy part, that doing that just revealed to her who she was inside, the soul that searches for enlightenment, healing, integrity and peace. Until we peel back the layers of acculturation, we don’t even see ourselves with clarity, don’t know who we really are.
In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity. They remind us that we are not our present role or our current expression, rather that we are spirit living a human life.
To me, when in her last days on earth Alexis appears without worrying about her appearance, letting go of feminine artifice in favour of the practical, a yellow flower in her hair the only outward sign of her spirit, it just means that she is preparing to go to that place she has already seen, the place beyond that she described to her sisters, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for we are all one.
For those still immersed in binary gender, still feeling the need to defend their choices and follow the rules, her shedding of external trappings takes her back to who she “really is,” much like the theatrical flourish at the end of “Hedwig And The Angry Inch.”
They see who “he” really is as defined by her body, now exposed. I see who she really is as spirit, soon to be released from a fleshly, finite life.
You can’t tell how queer someone is by looking at them. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t show their entire spirit in any one moment, not with the bounds of this material world. They show their role, today’s choices all about what they are ready to do and be right now, what they are ready to engage. They have to be tame enough to be effective in the culture they swim inside.
Trans is not, in the end, about outward expression, rather it is about inward knowledge and how we let that awareness influence our choices in the world.
For people who still assume they are their body, their appearance and their role, that’s usually almost impossible to grasp.
As we become ready to transition, though, it all becomes clear.
Blessings to my sister Alexis, wherever she is reborn this time.
“I always felt that she had the spirit of a female.
I always referred to her as a she.”
— Sham Ibrahim