I have lots of updates to make about the tortures of finishing a dissertation (can I get an amen?), and the joys of parenting a one-year-old (I know I can get one for this!), and the pleasures of reconnecting (dates and renewed communication) with your love after the first year of co-parenting, so stay tuned for all of that. But J and I have been talking a lot lately about gender, and – partly inspired by this post over at Love Invents Us, and the fact that, like Yogi’s mama, I’ve also been reading T Cooper’s Real Man Adventures* – I thought I’d reach out here to see what this community has to say about the big ole’ off-limits topic of transitioning.
I want to say out the gate that none of my thoughts about transitioning are absolute. I don’t believe that I’m the best one to make decisions for anyone other than myself and, for now, Bram. I think there are lots and lots of reasons that women transition to become men (which is what I’ll talk about here; I won’t discuss MTF women), and I would hate it if I implied that those reasons are all unsound. This version of happiness – the one I’ve carved out for myself – wouldn’t work for most people, and I wouldn’t expect it to. I give my money (limited though it is) to organizations that spend most of theirs fighting for trans rights, and I feel plenty good about doing that. I know that we have trans readers, and even if it were any of my business (which it’s not), I would absolutely, unequivocally support them. Support and respect them.
In truth, my concerns about transitioning are less about transitioning at all, and more about the way we respond to it in contemporary American culture. I get worried whenever something, anything, becomes off limits in terms of critical discourse. When you can’t ask questions about its implications, its consequences, its motivations without being shut down, or accused of being hostile, or accused of being phobic, or accused of being unpatriotic (whatever the specifics). I get worried when we’re not supposed to talk about something, when we’re just supposed to maintain silent agreement or else. And I think that’s happened around the fairly sizable new wave of transmen.* And I find this especially worrisome because it means that we’re not supposed to ask questions about a choice that lots and lots of people are making even though that choice means the life-long injection of synthetic hormones and the surgical alternation of bodies. In my opinion, the seriousness of these steps calls not for silence, but for a robust conversation. And we’re the ones to have it because, frankly, these are our people we’re talking about. Or they start out that way. The only other people who are going to talk about this are actually transphobic. They are bigots. So for fuck’s sake, let’s don’t let them dominate the conversation.
As for my thoughts, they come from an admittedly biased place. Though it took me some time to narrow it down, I am deeply and profoundly attracted to masculine women. My wife is the single sexiest thing I’ve ever seen, and that’s no lie. My wife in tailored men’s pants and a tie? Well, you don’t need to know about this. ;) J. Halberstam. Judith Butler. But to be fair, I’m plenty attracted to transmen too. Read: my still abiding crush on T Cooper. I don’t find him as sexy now as I once did, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t there. And though I can’t imagine she’d ever make this choice, if J decided to transition again in the future (has she written here before about the two years she spent as a man?), nothing about her draw for me would change. I love female masculinity, but trans masculinity will do.
I’m just a little concerned right now to see us subscribe so unquestioningly to the intense medicalization of identity. And when I say “unquestioningly,” I don’t mean individual transmen because I’m sure they’ve questioned plenty; I mean us at large. When we’re finally talking about the media-driven body image issues that bring women (and men) to the brink of starvation, or under the knife, or just to sustained self-loathing, I worry about sending a whole new category of people there too. Moreover, if J did decide to transition again, I would worry about the health risks of T. I mean, we try not to take aspirin when we get headaches, you know? So, I worry.
I also wonder about the message of still working so damn hard to fit within the binary gender system. I mean, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in issuing a resounding fuck off to the notion of being either a woman or a man. A mama or a papa. A girly-girl or macho. Truly: why the hell haven’t we picked at least one non-gendered pronoun and made it stick? I remember reading Sandra Bem’s research on gender, and how she discovered that we’re healthiest, psychologically-speaking, when we possess LOTS of both stereotypically female AND stereotypically male characteristics. That we’re UNHEALTHY if we possess neither (if we’re sort of ungendered), but that we’re also not doing so hot if we manifest one to the exclusion of the other. I am for sure on one side. I love most of the stereotypical “girl” stuff: red lipstick, and empathy, and Downton Abbey. :) And J is in lots of ways intensely masculine. Still, I’d say there are areas of overlap, and I’d say those areas are important to us. My worry about transitioning is that in order to pass, transmen have to exaggerate one set to the exclusion of the other. Otherwise they might be found out. Otherwise they might be in danger of hateful bigots. But if they’re exaggerating and suppressing, that’s not so authentic either, right? That worries me.
I’m also a little concerned about the degree to which this is sometimes (maybe?) a furtherance of sexism. In the passage Yogi’s mama is talking about in her post, Cooper (the character?) says: “the word lesbian? I have never and would never use that term in reference to myself. Never. In fact, I’m probably one of the most lesbophobic people on the planet, probably because of my won fucked-up issues of not wanting to be assumed to be one. I got no beef with lesbians; I’m just not one. I’ve never seen even one episode of the The L Word. Never been to the Michigan Womyn’s Festival, don’t know who Dinah Shore is, and coertainly never donned a thumb ring or ear cuff” (15-16). Sigh. Maybe it’s just me, but does this read as sexist to you? And do you think it’s unique to T Cooper? It feels to me like transitioning is, to some degree, a rejection of the vestiges of femaleness that one can’t shake with the right clothes, or haircut, or body carriage. And of course that’s okay: we are entitled to reject femaleness if it’s not our thing. But is there any point at which that rejection might be said to be reflective of the sexism that we seem intent on maintaining in this culture? And if so, if it’s just still better to be a man, isn’t that a conversation worth having? Because here’s the thing: that’s a way out of fighting for gay rights. If our masculine women all become men, we can get legally married. And have benefits. But does that make us straight? And by doing it, are we saying that straight is best?
Question: If J transitioned, would that make me straight? And if a choice she made made me straight, doesn’t that mean that none of this (straight, gay, man, woman) is quite really real anyway? And if it’s not quite really real, shouldn’t we be having lots and lots of conversations about what it means?
I don’t know. I have questions, but no answers. What I do have, though, is a true and abiding love for queer people, so I care about this choice, to which so many queer people are turning. I respect anyone who struggles to find themselves amidst all of the voices that try to distract us. I’ll call anyone whatever they want me to. For the most part, I’ll even think of them however they want me to. I love my masculine wife, and I’d love her if she were my masculine husband. Still, I’m glad she’s my masculine wife. I love that she’s chivalrous towards me. T Cooper’s wife says that being with him makes her feel more like a woman than she’s ever felt before, and I get that because that’s what J has done for me. But I also love that my masculine wife breastfeeds our children, and that she does it in ties, no less. I love the contradictions, the assumptions she upends, the offhand way she dismisses what is expected of her in favor of what feels authentically right. Had she gone through with her plan to transition all those years back, she wouldn’t have given birth to our perfect son. That’s unimaginable to me, though it could have happened. I mean, how could she have known how important her female body would come to be for her family? I hate it when people call her a “lady,” because she’s not that, but she isn’t a man either. I’m glad we’re sending the message to our son that gender categories need to be exploded. Now. And I worry about sending the message that they should be adhered to, which feels like a part of transitioning.
I also worry about our resistance to the simple, difficult fact that we are only able to have this human experience because we live in these human bodies. That, though these bodies are flawed, though they fail us, they are our only ways into life. I don’t know what it’s like to be born in a body that doesn’t reflect my gender. But I do know what it’s like to feel deeply, devastatingly let down by my body. Letting go of the narrative of pregnancy and childbirth – which was for so long deeply embedded in my beliefs about what it is to be a woman – has been crushing and painful, but it’s also been profoundly beautiful and formative: a matter of surrendering to my basic humanity, which is, in the end, vulnerable and exposed and disappointing. Which is something.short.of.what.I.want.but.so.much.more.than.I.have.a.right.to.ask.for. I could fight to fulfill the thing that I expected of my body, to bring my body to meet the standards I hold for it. But would I risk losing something of my basic humanity if I could just fix the ways I feel let down? Is there something to be gained from meeting my body where it is instead? I don’t mean these questions rhetorically; I really mean them. Are we purely blessed by our ability to overcome so many of our perceived weaknesses, or is there something meaningful in just not doing that sometimes?
I ran across this line in a Stacey Waite poem this morning: “I will not be the kind of boy who can not bear the memory of her body.” Is there something in this?
Truly, I’d love your thoughts. Please keep them kind, though. Breaking Into Blossom has only ever been a space of compassionate community. I very much want to keep it that way.
* Do you have a friend who would go to a reading of one of your favorite writers, and get copies of their books that you teach with signed for you, and buy you their new book, and get it signed too while they’re at it? Because we do. And as T Cooper himself notes in his inscription to us in said book, that is one “nice-ass friend.”
** Does anyone have figures for this? Recent studies as to the percentages of lesbians who are now choosing to transition? I know it’s growing, but I don’t know how much.
Post-publication edit: There are already great comments here, which I’m SO thrilled to see. I would love for this to become a thriving conversation: so many of you have insights to offer. Please especially check out the the comment from Maybe a New Leaf, whose author speaks eloquently from the position of a trans guy. And thanks to all of you who trust this space enough to share.