This piece was something I wrote at the behest of my dear friend Conor Mclaughlin, to be posted on the Well Dressed (Soon to be) Doctors Tumblr. This is a Tumblr where Conor and other Ph.D. students discuss fashion and its many various intersections. I have reposted it here with permission, and encourage y'all to check out the rest of the WD(STB)D Tumblr -- there is some great content there!
This past March, I celebrated my fourth tranniversary, or the fourth year since I came out as trans*. The past four years have been nothing short of packed. I have made two major moves, lost my grandmother, defended a dissertation, and recently started a new job as an assistant professor. However, despite everything I have done, there are several constants, several recurring themes that weave through my days. One of those constants is the meaning and value of aesthetic to my own lived experience as a trans* person, scholar, and teacher.
I have written about my own trans* aesthetic recently, particularly as an act of refusal. I do not intend to revise or refute my earlier statements; I still believe them to be very much true and resonant with my own experiences and approach to the world as a trans* person. However, what I do want to do is build on my thoughts to think through what it means for my trans*ness to "show up," or for me to "show up as trans*" in the multiple spaces in which I exist. In doing so, I am extending a strand of thought I have been developing alongside my trans* brista, D-L Stewart over the past seven months. That thought is, quite simply: my trans*ness is a gift, and I get to decide with whom, how, and in what ways to share it with others.
For so long, I have struggled with others' definitions of my trans*ness, especially my trans*femme and non-binary identity. I have had to work through the sheer amounts of garbage I have been socialized to believe regarding my trans* body as inherently less valuable/beautiful/worthy of love than my cisgender peers. I have also had to work through the stigmas, internalized shame, and internalized transphobia of being a non-binary trans* person in a world that is regulated by the gender binary. I am still working through this all, still sifting through the garbage I have been fed. To be sure, these messages are steeped in genderism, transmisogyny, and sexism. And even though I understand this intellectually, and am committed to counteracting the negative realities of these systems of oppression, I would be remiss if I did not share that I still have a lot of work to do around unlearning how I have been socialized in a genderist, transmisogynist, and sexism world. I am also fairly confident I am not alone here. So while I share I have work to do in unlearning genderism, it does not mean I am invested in genderism, but that I have been socialized to believe that the gender binary is real, and that anything—or anyone—who operates outside of that binary is less than, abject, or unworthy. Thirty (plus) years of socialization does not go away overnight, or in four years, or once I came out as trans*, so yeah, I still—and we all still—have our own work to do in order to (re)claim our lives, our narratives, and our beauty.
And this blogpost is part of that reclamation.
Every day when I wake up, I am confronted, as we all are, by a series of choices. These choices largely revolve around how I want to share myself with the world. For example, what version of myself am I willing to share with my neighbors when I walk my dog in the morning (answer: usually a version with intensely messy hair)? If I am spending the day writing, what version of myself makes me the most comfortable to convey my ideas? And if I am heading out of the house, what version of myself do I want to gift to others?
This last question is a new version of an old question I used to ask myself. Namely, the question I used to ask myself was something like this: what version of myself may be acceptable to share with the people with whom I am interacting today?
Ugh. Even just typing that feels icky. I can actually see the internalized garbage I was referencing earlier in that question. It's right there, clear as day in one word: acceptable.
Acceptable for whom? Acceptable how? For someone who is deeply invested, both personally and professionally, in disrupting normativity in all of its limiting formations, the reality that I used to ask this question makes me sick to my stomach, because it highlights how my previous socialization, and my own investments in genderism, transmisogyny, and sexism led me to enact a certain form of respectability politics in how I presented my trans*ness to the world. Or perhaps more to the point, how I enacted what I thought my trans*ness should be so that I would be seen as "approachable," "not angry," or not "too trans*" for my cisgender peers.
But not anymore. I just can't with that sort of garbage anymore. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever again.
In my journaling with D-L, I began to (re)construct my trans*ness, and more specifically my transfemininity and non-binary trans*ness, as a gift. What I mean by this is that my trans*ness is:
Something to be honored; and
Something that I get to give on my terms to my people when I choose.
My trans*ness is my gift, and I get to determine with whom I share it. And if I don't share it, or I choose to show up in ways that others—cis or trans*—"recognize" me as trans*…well, that is not my issue, nor should it be. Not only is my trans*ness more than clothing deep, but perhaps it just isn't for you to recognize.
And that is where I have landed. Consistent with my notion of my trans* aesthetic as an act of refusal, viewing my trans*ness as a gift means refusing to have my legibility as a trans* person (an act determined by others) define who I am, how I show up, or my "authenticity" as a trans*femme, non-binary trans* person (and really, that word authentic…that's a whole other series of blogposts right there). If I do not "show up" as trans* based on some genderist, transmisogynist, and/or sexist assumptions others hold, it is not because I am not trans* (because, duh). Instead, it may be because, well, I have determined that the people and the place and the moment I am in may not be worth my gifting my trans*ness. It does not mean I am "not really trans*," but that I am making choices about how to exist in a space, at a point in time, and/or with certain people in a way that is, for me, an enactment of my trans*ness, on my terms, in whatever way, shape, or form I choose.
In a culture where people feel they have an unassailable right to pass judgment, critique, violate, threaten, and kill trans* people, trans* women, trans* women of color, and non-binary trans* people, viewing my trans*ness as a gift is one of my acts of defiance. It is one of my acts of refusal. It is one of the ways I can (re)claim and (re)assert my agency as a trans*femme person to say:
This is what my trans*ness looks like, which may not be what it looks like tonight or tomorrow;
My trans*femininity includes a beard, and just what is not feminine about that?;
My non-binary identity means lots of things, and shows up in lots of ways, some of which I don’t even fully understand yet, and that is okay;
My femininity is not only embodied, but is aesthetic, affective, and enacted. My femininity is campy and queeny and fun and serious and is not a trope or made up composite of feminine stereotypes. And if I hear one more person denigrate the use of makeup…guuuurl, miss me with that.
My trans*ness is a gift, and I get to share it with whomever I want, on whatever terms I want, and in whatever forms I want.
And if you can't see or recognize my trans*ness, then maybe there is a reason for that.
And so now, when I wake up, I think to myself: with whom, and how, and where do I want to share the gift of my trans*ness today?
Y'all, this has been one heckuva half of 2015. Talk about a tangle of emotions, I feel like I and others have been put through the ringer lately. I mean, in the past week alone, Jennicet Gutierrez heckled and booed by fellow members of the LGBfakeT community for providing an important voice of resistance in the struggle to end the deportation of trans* migrants, but then, not even 48 hours later, SCOTUS released their decision on marriage, ruling 5-4 in favor of marriage rights being extended to gay couples. The fervor with which this was received prompted many reactions, including many queer people who I am friends with posting messages like, "Celebrate today, work tomorrow," thereby further erasing and marginalizing trans* people who have been pushed to the margins for the past 12+ years since the marriage movement became central to the LGBfakeT political machine (led by the HRC, itself a highly homonormative and gay White cis male dominated space). Of course this didn't rest easy for me...so I raised a bit of a fuss via Facebook, as has become a bit of a habit for my killjoy self.
And then, if that wasn't enough, 8 members of the #BlackOutPride direct action in Chicago were arrested for holding up Chicago Pride for about 20 minutes. They did so to speak to the continuation of White supremacy, anti-Blackness, and anti-trans* sentiment furthered through Pride...and again, many (White homonormative) attendees booed them and told them to "get lost." Yeah, because that's community for you, right? Your own supposed people telling you to "get lost."
And of course this doesn't even begin to get into the continued violent erasure of trans* women of color...or the fact that, while marriage equality is now a legal reality, homo- and transphobia still reign supreme, and people can still be evicted, fired, and have their children taken from them for being gay and/or trans*. Oh, and that whole "trans* panic" defense? Yeah, that still exists as a way to explain away the murder of trans* people.
But #LoveWins, right?
So yeah, this has been a tough couple weeks. On the one hand, I am so overjoyed for my friends for whom this decision means so very much, but on the other hand, I am exhausted, hurt, and sad. I so very much want a radical, trickle up activism that focuses on the most marginalized of us (using Dean Spade's rhetoric here), but at the present moment, that seems so very far from what will continue happening in the near (and likely distant) future.
In a conversation with one of my queer kin today, we were venting about the myriad issues that have torn us up this past week. She--a queer married woman with children--shared many of my misgivings as a single trans* person with no kiddos. As we Skyped, the frustration was visible on our faces. She also shared with me that she had been experiencing intense microaggressions at her workplace and felt like she didn't have anyone to turn to in order to process her experiences. Sure, we could Skype, but there was no one who could be there on a regular basis in person. And for as good as technology is, we both desired to hug each other and just be with each other in real time, which Skype has yet to sort out.
After venting, I asked her two questions that have been on my lips a lot with the people I love. They were:
How can I best support you right now? What do you need?
She looked at me for a bit, paused, and then said: I don't really know right now.
And as I was listening to her, and hearing her sort through what was going on for her, I realized something: I don't know what I need right now either! Here I have been, asking people to name what they need so that I can best support them, when all this time, I don't even know. And it's not that she or I don't know ourselves, or cannot name our feelings...but we just feel so tangled up inside, and are trying to cope with the daily micro- and macroaggressions, that we literally do not have the time to sort through what would feel best for us in terms of moving forward.
As we kept talking, we realized it felt good just to name that we had no idea what we wanted. We had no idea what healing looked, felt, or sounded like for us. We had no idea if we would ever even feel "better," that mythical concept that everyone wishes for you when you express feeling stuck in the muck. And we just left it at that. That we felt stuck, we felt exhausted, we felt hurt and sad and angry and invisible (and yet hyper-visible) and commodified and that our identities had been co-opted and traded recently by others...and this may be as good as it gets.
And so here we were, toward the end of our time together, but nowhere nearer a "conclusion" to our conversation than when we started. And I feel like even this blogpost is getting away from me...but I guess that is part of the point. I guess that #sometimeshealing means honestly not knowing what the eff you need and expressing that. And it means that maybe, just being alongside someone you trust and can express that deep sense of doubt that it will ever "get better" (despite what Dan Savage says) feels good for the moment. And doing that allows you to cope when friends of yours post a John Oliver clip where he vocalizes the intense need for trans* rights, as if trans* people (and particularly, trans* women of color) haven't been saying that stuff for years...but because he is a cis White guy and a celebrity he gets all the praise and attention for "doing the right thing." Ugh...miss me with that! I mean, yay John Oliver for being down for the cause (at least publicly), but for shame that people are heralding him as such a "wonderful person" for saying what has been screamed and shouted from all corners of the trans* movement for literally decades. Decades, y'all.
As someone who researches and blogs about resilience, it feels particularly strange to say, "You know what? Sometimes, I have no idea how to be resilient, if I can be resilient, or what resilience even gets us." And that is putting it mildly. When I have had these thoughts before, I have felt intense shame and even felt fraudulent, as if my not feeling resilient somehow meant that the research in which I was involved was blemished. What has been helpful, though, is to recognize that we all struggle with understanding the value, worth, and actuality of resilience at some point in time. For example, in our working alongside each other during the dissertation study, Silvia shared with me that she worried she would no longer qualify for the study because she didn't feel she ever would be resilient again (as a side note, being resilient was not a criteria for entering the study, but the study focused on narratives of resilience) due to her current situation. Moreover, four out of the nine participants alongside whom I worked (that's about 45%, y'all) left college before graduating...and only one has yet to return. And although I talked about this as a potential sign of resilience, it is also at the very same time a sign that the college environment was pushing these folks away, or disallowing them to be resilient as college students...that the only way they could practice resilience was to actively move away from the collegiate environment and focus on themselves and their lives.
As my pal Dr. D-L Stewart has often said, this is a case of the both/and see-saw that we as trans* people continue to ride...and sometimes healing means not knowing how to get off that see-saw...or if we ever will.
But just acknowledging that today...and hearing it reflected to me in the form of the answer: I have no idea what I need; that was important for me. It allowed me to say the same thing, and not search for an answer when one really wasn't there.
So #sometimeshealing is not-healing...or at least not knowing what healing looks, sounds, or feels like.
And maybe that, in and of itself, is okay. And maybe that, although not a place one can or should stay for a long time, can be a good holding place for awhile as we work to sort through what will allow us to be happy and healthy in a world that very much continues to neglect, abuse, and disavow our mere presence.
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.