Terrifying Transgender

Transgender, if you do it right, is terrifying.

Transvestism isn’t, be it crossdressing or drag. If all you do is change clothes for a bit of fun, retaining your assigned gender,  staying fixed in heteronormativity.

Transsexualism isn’t.   If you have a birth defect and your attempt is to hide it, fix it, blend in as the real sex you always really were, well, that supports heteronormativity.

I lived through decades of transsexuals and crossdressers fighting hard to separate themselves from transgender identification.  They didn’t want to be colonized and co-opted by those transgender people who sought to appropriate their deep cultural truth.

They knew that transgender is terrifying and they had no desire to be terrifying.   They just wanted to go along to get along.

Today, many try to take the terror out of transgender by removing its threat of challenging comforting divisions.   Their model of trans is a kind of neutering, a removal from oppressive gender constructs rather than a true crossing of them.   By specifying pronouns and staying away from the power of assimilation, they treat transgender as a kind of personal expression that floats above gendered norms rather than challenging them.   In this case, trans is the embodiment of “none of the above.”

Transgender, though, if you do it right is terrifying.

Doing it right means revealing the artificiality and limits of gendered assumptions by cutting across them.  It is when we powerfully show that we are “all of the above” that people begin to get queasy, feeling the challenge of liminality to their comforting social divisions.

Transgender opens up the power of connection, demanding we face the mixed, mired and beautiful part of us that links us to continuous common humanity.

Any transperson who has experienced the “third gotcha,” seeing their gender shift in someone else’s eyes knows the power and the fear contained in this truth.

It is why, on Halloween, no matter what costume we try to wear, we end up just being the “scary tranny” if we do it well enough.

Looking at the current sexual harassment scandals though a transgender lens leaves us seeing them as abuses of power, which always run deeper than gendered behaviours.  Sure, men may abuse power in a different way than women do, but that demand for obedience at the threat of destruction runs through the stripe of humanity.

This view isn’t comforting to those who are used to an us versus them mentality, a separation between victim and oppressor, between hunted and prey, between masculine and feminine, between good and evil.

In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.

I knew that was my mission statement, my transgender mission statement when I first heard anthropologist Anne Bolin say it almost 25 years ago and it remains my touchstone today.

And its when that humanity beyond convention is exposed that transgender becomes terrifying, at least to those who crave constructed walls for comfort against the fear of what lies within them.

Transgender, if you do it right, is terrifying.

It’s why I love it, because moving beyond fear to seeing with love is a key to becoming aware.   It’s why I hate it, because being a solitary, abused, phobogenic object (2006) is lonely and tough.

But I can’t imagine living with any other stance.

Halloween marks the time when our ancestors believed the veil between this realm and others was at its thinnest.  It is the moment when shadows dance, scary and potent, revealing connection.

May yours be energetic, divine and transcendent.

Easy To Slag

I have been thrashing about with the concept of “learned helplessness,” the notion that with enough repetition of negative results we learn to avoid even trying to break out of the box that we find ourselves in.

How do you break your own deep conditioned responses?   Clearly, the best way is to try something new and get better results, outcomes that reward, support and encourage different choices.

That, though, is not so easy to do on your own.   Your mind is already conditioned to see the expected outcomes and to minimize possible flashes of better.   When you believe that no one gets you it is easy to look almost anywhere and have that assumption confirmed.

I want to be able to leave the basement and come back with something more than short-dated 99¢ clearance bratwurst, but being able to find the stimulation, affirmation and mirroring I need is far from simple.

Why can’t I just take the risk, just put myself out there with grace, resilience and persistence to build a new audience that values what I have to share in a way that brings me what I need?

Reading an article in the NY Times Magazine about the attacks on Amy Cuddy let me realize what holds me back.

I am enormously easy to slag off.  Since, after a lifetime of experience, I know how simple it is to portray me as weird, disconnected, out-of-touch, twisted, sick, over complicated and so many other negative things, I expect to be attacked in passive-aggressive ways that do not engage what I say but rather just slight my queer, thoughtful style.

“Well, I don’t understand it, so how can it be important?   I mean, if he can’t say it in simple words that everyone gets, then how real can it be?”

The message is simple: go along to get along.   Challenge is not what we need.   Help us attack shared enemies rather than asking us to question our own choices and maybe then we can find some common ground.  We are all in agreement; why do you have to try and cause trouble?

Trans is a very individual journey.   It is a quest to claim our own special heart rather than trying to become one of the crowd.   This, though, is a tough idea to own for people who long dreamed of becoming one of the crowd, strong, beautiful and well accepted.   Who The Fuck Wants To Be A Tranny? (2006)

The voltage that courses through the grid that walls me off is the power of getting slagged off, dismissed and mocked for my attempt to communicate.   That thread started early in my history with two Aspergers parents, continued through public school where I learned to stand on the sidelines as an idiosyncratic iconoclast and got magnified in LGBT spaces where the correctness of identity politics is valued as a comfort blanket.   Add to that the hew and cry against queer perversion and I have good reason to be trained to avoid rather than engage, to reside inside my own learned helplessness.

I know how easy I am to slag off, to characterize as a stupid freak not worthy of engagement.

And that, I note, keeps me silent and in this basement.

Fighting While Trans

Trans is a losing proposition.

Ask anyone who resists emerging as trans, who advises resistance, or even those who have emerged and they will tell you that you should not, cannot emerge without enduring loss.

You may lose family or friends,  you may lose your job or career, you may lose relationship opportunities and reproductive possibilities, you may lose safety and standing in the world.

Loss is inevitable.    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t benefits in emerging, of course, that it can’t lead to a better, more authentic and more actualized life, but the price of breaking convention and expectation, of losing those normative dreams & hopes, is always with you.

To emerge you have to fight through daily reminders of loss, always keeping your eye on the reasons why emergence is vital and critical to your life.

The only way to claim your trans expression in the world is to fight for your right to be queer, to be someone beyond shame enforced expectations and assumptions.

Facing the whole world with a fighter’s crouch, though, puts a huge barrier between you and the connection, support and love that you need, the affirmation of who you are inside that was denied while you were forced into the closet.

The styles of fighting we learned as kids don’t serve us well through gendershift.   Men and women take power in very different ways, so we need to powershift as we claim our authentic expression.

Combining the loss and the limits of experience, of training to fight in our new gender leads most people to one simple outcome.

Instead of fighting to win, we fight to avoid losing.   Instead of trying to own our own power, we try to avoid being hurt, avoid being battered, avoid being dismissed, avoid being shamed again.

This kind of defensive posture leaves us bristling, armoured, isolated, apart.   The ultimate trans surgery is….

To fight to win means that you have to believe that there winning is possible, that there is something worth winning.   Scramble long enough to avoid losing, though, and the notion that winning is even an option fades away, lost in the daily struggle for survival.

Trying to hold on to our cherished visualizations, all those imaginings of how our lives could be and should be, through the process of transgender emergence is a recipe for getting stuck in a bubble of our own making.  No thirteen year old can imagine her future life with any kind of certainty, unless it is merely following the expectations of others.  She needs to try, to experiment, to spread her wings and see where she can blossom.

Learning to both let go of your ego and grab for your dreams at the same time is a very tough balancing act.    To become new you must let go of the old, even the old hopes, and be present in possibility.

Does fighting while trans mean that we have to take on some defined political role, giving our voice to the group, does it mean that we have to impose our own will and demands, or does it mean finding new ways to be effective and responsive?

The fact is that fighting while trans usually means defending our hearts against people who want to impose their own belief structures onto our actions.   Even simple banter, the flirting and back & forth of everyday conversations feel like a minefield as we police ourselves, working to conceal our complexity and avoid losing again.

Many observers don’t see this internal tension, instead assuming that anyone bold enough to emerge as trans in the world is potent enough to do anything.   Our internal narrative is obscured by the assumption of strength rather than the understanding that we have used our strength to emerge and feel like we are always walking on the edge of risk.

Some even see our emergence as a trigger for their own fears.  They may see something in our expression that they have struggled to resist, or may see us as a threat to the belief systems they hold dear.   If they feel fear around us, though, they rarely look inward to their own tensions, instead branding us as phobogenic objects, creating the fear they feel.   They fear we can see what they are trying to hide, and often they are right.  This gives them permission to dismiss and destroy us, assigning destructive motives to our choices and using those projections to justify silencing us, no matter what pain it causes.

For people close to us, we know that to fight with them is to harm our relationships, even when those we love treat us in ways that deny and demolish the energy we need to claim our potential.  It’s easy to attack those who set out to hurt us, much harder to bear the pain inflicted by the limits and fears of those who really love us.

Fighting while trans, then, usually comes down not to taking a big swing to claim our power in the world but rather to living with a roiling internal battle between our own bold liberation and our own attempt to fit in, to connect, to stay safe.  By being trapped in the shame cycle where we fight ourselves, reminded by the scars that kept us small and hidden for so long, we end up eating our own passion rather than trusting it.

The idea that trans is a losing proposition is deeply ingrained in our knowledge, and if we ever start to forget, someone will remind us what victims transpeople are, remind us how we are oppressed as a class, remind us that many see our trans expression as lies, as sickness, as perversion, as reason enough to silence and hurt us.

As long as our fight is to avoid losing, rather than to trust that we can win, the battle will mostly go on inside.   It will be a competition of policing, striving to appear normative and harmless enough to avoid the brunt of resistance that has hurt us in the past.

We have learned to live with loss, but living with exposure, with revelation, with assurance feels very, very risky.

And until we can stand proudly in the light, fighting while trans will never be fighting to win.