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?
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.