Sex Reassignment: More Like Algebra or Carolyn Keene? (Body Hatred, Part Two)

23 02 2011

The word “hatred” has a certain buzziness these days, a quality that tends to get it sent into battle from both sides of everything. In one of many examples, Prop 8 protests gave us “Stop the H8,” a response in part to a small, tasteless movement of picketers who have been insisting for a while that “God Hates Fags.”

Hatred, in other contexts, might have meant merely the opposite of adoration. Here, though, the message is not that God loves heteros the way I love oranges and hates homos the way I hate pickled cabbage. It is not that God feels like His tongue shrivels up and His skin crawls when He walks into a room where He can smell a homosexual (as is the case with me and pickled cabbage). “Hate” does not mean “harbor strong dislike for” in our current moment. Hatred is not an emotion, but a political stance.

Neo-conservative picketers are by no stretch of the imagination the only people using the word “hate,” either. They are a convenient example, but the truth is, hatred has become something like a culturally sanctioned way of expressing feeling. We hate our bodies (even though we sort of know we shouldn’t). We hate celebrities and politicians. We hate frat boys and/or reality TV shows and/or pharmaceutical companies.

The truth is, it’s almost always easier to feel angry than to feel even momentarily powerless. It is easier to say, “I hate my high school,” than to say, “I couldn’t make the people there respect me.” It’s easier to say, “The Bible says God hates gay people,” than to say, “My belief system does not account for these people I don’t understand.” Easier to say, “I hate this vagina,” than to say, “I am deeply uncomfortable with the way people touch me sexually and I don’t know any way of having sex with this body part that would be less uncomfortable.”

It’s a big problem. Lately, I’ve really been grappling with the way self-hatred still defines so much of how we think of trans people, both within and without the community. Hate the old body, love the new, right? Or in some cases, hate the old body, hate the new one less.

Part of the problem is, transition is not the replacement of the old body with a new body. You can’t just lop off body x and sew on body y. Or, if you’ll allow the math pun, body xx with body xy (or vice versa). If that were the case, transition would look like this:

The problem is not that we feel we need to change our bodies. Change everything you want to, I say. Throw a q or a 7 or a question mark into that equation, for goodness sake. The problem is staring down the narrow corridor of that equals sign.

All the surgeries, the parentheticals, the additions and subtractions—they can’t and shouldn’t be strung together and expected to produce some average, normal, unremarkable, standard maleness (or femaleness, as the case may be). There isn’t an average, normal, unremarkable, standard maleness. Throw out the term on the other side of that equals sign. There’s nothing there, just the same fantastic, troubled, strong, pinkish-tan in my case, human body that walked down the equals sign tunnel in the first place.

So, as promised, I must conclude that sex reassignment (and, by extension, gender itself) is less like algebra and much more like Carolyn Keene. A singular name for a disparate grouping of bodies and psyches and creativities.  A convenient fiction, which nonetheless has very real material effects in the world. And it’s only by enjoying each Nancy Drew novel in its own right that you can really love Nancy Drew—none of those books can be strung together to add up to any larger story arc. The point is, I love Nancy Drew, not because she’s on her way to some definitive, 56-book-long Answer. I love her because at any given moment in any given book, she is Nancy Drew.

Childhood nostalgias aside, I really do think we lose something when we rely on hatred to explain ourselves. So, queers and allies, let’s try to change the terrain between hatred and anti-hatred. Our struggle doesn’t have to be a struggle on those terms; it doesn’t have to be a struggle to get the Them to stop h8ing the Us. Speak out against discriminatory practices like Prop 8, certainly, but push it farther—let’s push ourselves to write novels, to take photos, to write history textbooks. Resist hatred by coming up with different ways of talking about feeling, different stories about why a person might want to add a (p + 2b) to their x2.


Tales of Very Hairy Men, Episode 3: Trans Like Me

20 09 2010

A brief note of business first: I’ve created an email account purely for communications regarding my blogself, and I would love to hear from you. It’s firstjamiethenjames (at) gmail (dot) com, and I’ve also listed it on the About page.

I have a tendency to do things on my own. It isn’t a matter of pride; far from it. This tendency is an overpowering demon, ugly and almost comically stupid. It doesn’t give chase; it doesn’t wave its arms or roar. It is just a lumpy, warty, unbelievably heavy monster. In times of stress, it lumbers out of my head and sits on my legs so I can’t move. Unable to reach for help, I do all my work in almost-solitude, staring into the blank, drooly face of my own inane inertia monster.

With varying degrees of success over the years, I’ve tried to overpower it. There have been occasions when I’ve lifted it up far enough to roll out from underneath. Somehow, though, even after twenty-two years of education and socialization, I still haven’t found a way to sidestep it in the first place.

Thus, it is almost always on my own that I write papers, lift weights, put together furniture.

It was also on my own that I came into my own transness. Since then, I’ve heard tell of an utterly foreign phenomenon: it seems that some people actually talk to other people when they’re teetering on the edge of a gender identity revelation. Not so for me. Thousands of people were being trans and talking about it on the internet, in discussion groups, even in my own school’s GLBTQ resource center. And I was wedged beneath my monster, watching Queer as Folk on Surf the Channel, thinking, I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something weird about how I can’t stop watching this show.

Fittingly, this was taken on my first time out at a queer bar.

The face I would've made then...

Everything worked out okay, though. I marinated in Queer as Folk until I figured everything out and then I made a beeline for Express Men. I learned to tie a half Windsor from the perforated card included in the Macy’s tie packaging. I carried that card around for a few weeks in case my tie came undone and I couldn’t remember how to fix it.

A year later, I had loosened up enough to wear t-shirts some of the time. I was living in a new city, had made new friends.

One evening, I was out studying when a friend called to ask if she could stop by. She was out with a visiting friend of hers, and she wanted us to meet. I knew a little about the guy from anecdotes: his name, his alma mater, that he was trans.

They came by to say hello. He was shorter than me, slight, wore thick black plastic glasses frames. His beard was full and dark. It was clear that our mutual friend very seriously wanted us to get along.

So the three of us strolled once around the campus center. I am not usually particularly bad at carrying on everyday conversation, but this meeting came at the point in my life right after I had decided to start T. My brain was on a constant loop from facial hair to low voices and back to facial hair.

And, of course, my new acquaintance had a very serious pair of sideburns. These sideburns probably yield more hair than the combined efforts of all the men’s faces in my entire family, great-grandparents included. I was stuck marveling at his hair follicles and wanting to know how to groom mustaches and wondering if his chin ever got tangled. Unable to come up with a non-weird way to explain all that to someone I’d only just met, I had to make do with whatever generic observations I could make about our immediate surroundings.

...if you'd told me I'd grow up to be this guy.

“That room back there is really orange,” I offered.

“Yeah, like orange all over.”

“No kidding. Oh hey, there’s a coffee place over there.”

“Coffee? I like coffee.”

“Me, too. I like coffee.”

“Holy crap! That girl has a lot of books!”

Once we’d cycled through the orange room, coffee, and books one more time, we’d arrived back at my studying spot, so they took their leave. I hoped my friend would explain to him that I am in reality a titillating, imaginative, witty person and this evening was just a momentary fluke.

It only took a few moments after they’d left before I realized a strange warm feeling in the bottom of my stomach. Something inexplicable was buoying my spirits up.

Slowly, I realized how good it felt just to see that someone else out there was out in the world being trans like me. In spite of my own lackluster conversational efforts, I’d had a fantastic time during the fifteen minutes we’d spent walking around campus. There was something undeniable about coming into contact with a physical talking laughing thinking being who’d survived the pronoun battlefield, too.

It isn’t that this guy was the first trans person I’d ever met or even that we shared an especially deep conversation (as you may have noticed). He was the catalyst, however, that finally made this lesson stick.

I have no idea what this person’s transition was like for him. I don’t know if we have anything in common at all, except for this one word—which isn’t even a word, really, so much as a prefix—“trans.” But sharing that one word means sharing something very real. Something ineffable; something that can’t be reduced to hormones or to doctor’s appointments or to therapy sessions.

Meeting other trans people makes being trans feel less like a malady. This gender isn’t something unfortunate that befell me, like a broken arm or a car accident. Being trans isn’t something I have to accomplish in solitary silence, like math homework or plucking my eyebrows. This identity is difficult, touchy, and frankly heartbreaking sometimes. It’s easy to start thinking that my transness is just mine, just a fluke that gave me hips and made me self-conscious in customer service situations. But meeting other people who are trans like me reminds me that it’s also fucking beautiful.  It does not have to be just another battle I fight on my own.

So conclude my Tales of Very Hairy Men. The moral of my stories? People with lots of facial hair stick in my memory. If anyone ever wants me to learn a meaningful lesson about life, they should employ a person with a beard to teach it to me. And for those who are wondering, I do in fact still pluck my eyebrows. It makes my face more expressive.

The Boobs That Didn’t Belong to Anybody

19 07 2010

An illuminating moment for me came at my post-op party. We called it a “boob party” and spent the night celebrating chests. Everyone brought magazine clippings or photos of chests and we pasted them on the wall in the stairwell. We kept a running list of all the euphemisms for chests we could think of on the whiteboard usually reserved for intra-apartment communications like We need milk and Has anyone seen my watch? and HEY GUYS I LET THE CATS PEE ON THE SOFA (just kidding it’s water).

At this party, every guest was invited to wear whatever made their chest feel good. Some went topless, some chose corsets—we even supplied glitter-encrusted adhesive craft foam for those who wanted to make pasties (the majority of our guests chose this option, which was just another sign that my life is nothing like what my guidance counselors envisioned).

These stayed up in the entryway for weeks after the party.

Decorations for the boob party.

I would have made a beeline for the craft foam myself, possessing the healthy appreciation for glitter that I do, but my nipples were hot off the press and couldn’t quite be trusted with that sort of freedom.

It was early in the night and several of us were still putting last touches on our outfits. I was elbows-deep in a closet, digging for one of my old corsets for a friend. My painstakingly selected ensemble was a black a-shirt (through which you could just make out the square outlines of my nipple gauze), jeans, and a plaid fedora to which I had, in a fit of audacity, affixed a pin that announced, “trannyfag.” Someone had convinced me to wear green eyeshadow. I felt fantastically queer.

This friend, the corset-borrower-to-be, waited patiently as I cursed my way through the disorganized piles of clothes. We talked about my scars and my stitches, the egg-yolk-yellow hotel room I recovered in, the difficulty of flying back from San Francisco while trying not to lift any bags heavier than 15 pounds, as per my surgeon’s instructions.

Finally, I found the corset, white and lacey and a little dusty. Having been worn to virtually every costume party from high school through college (as I’ve mentioned, I am not a creative costume-maker), the boning was contoured just as I had so recently been. I untied the laces and shook the last echo of my former shape out of the fabric.

My friend raised her arms and I wrapped her in the stiff satin corset. I muttered something, mock-cantankerously, about having to relace the whole damn thing to fit her thinner frame. She giggled, and I hoped it was because she felt pretty, with the lace hugging her hips and her shoulders bare.

This was taken two weeks after surgery.

The celebrated chest, minus gauze.

It was true; I did nearly have to relace the thing, since her waist is comparable to my thigh and her shoulders are about forty-three times more muscular. Running my fingers over the familiar eyelets, feeling medical tape crinkle and tug across my chest, I felt very aware of the cool air on my collarbone. My collarbone hadn’t seen fresh air in a year, hidden under binders and loose t-shirts. Air moving across my collarbone was so unexpected, it was almost frightening.

I thought then of my friend, the corset threatening to slip right past her hips to her ankles. I thought of her shopping around for electrologists while I’m working so hard to sprout just four hairs from skin that doesn’t even do peach fuzz. I thought of her shyer, deeper voice in contrast to my own ringing, melancholic, opera-trained, still so alien mezzo.

“It’s hard to relate,” I began somewhat absently, watching my formerly hourglass-shaped corset conform to her taut, upside-down-triangle torso.

“I want hair,” I continued. “You don’t want hair. I let it grow, you rip it all out. We want all opposite things.”

She looked at me like I had just tried to explain differential equations using a flipflop and a jar of peanut butter.

“I think we want the same thing,” she told me bluntly.

It felt as though the poles had shifted.

Her voice had warm finality in it. It said, “I have no problem relating to you.” It said, “You’re looking for freedom and I am, too.” It said, “Your tits aren’t my tits, and both of us have beautiful chests.”