The Journal of Mennonite Writing asked me to submit for their queer issue. I don’t identify as Mennonite, but I did grow up in the church, so I asked my friends what to write about. They suggested the common question: In a world without rigid gender roles, would anyone need to be trans?
Thanksgiving with friends and strangers. I still wear a beard, but my nails are iridescent. This is how I measure time, before Caitlyn. The conversation turns to a trans woman I’ve never met. I’ve never met any trans women, that I know of. My friend says:
—If we eliminate these rigid gender roles, would anyone need to be trans?
Over the years, this question takes many forms:
—What does it mean to “experience” one’s gender as this or that?
—What does it mean to “feel like” a woman?
—What does “being a woman” mean to you?
—Can’t you just be a feminine man?
—Can’t you just be gay?
Interviewing a trans man, the reporter writes:
—But, surely the revolution is in re-defining what feminine or female attractiveness means rather than rejecting femaleness?
Is your gender part of the revolution?
We have a story in my family. My brother is young, nursing his favorite doll.
—I’m going to be a mommy when I grow up.
—Boys grow up to be daddies.
My mom is only trying to be accurate, but he sets down the doll, and never picks it up again. Cis doesn’t mean simple, he tells me now, a father of two. If I had a story like that, maybe everything would make sense. Maybe I could string this together into a narrative: beginning, middle, and end.
As a child, I want to climb trees and play make-believe. I love dolls and swords and video games. I want to be a princess, an astronaut, a ballerina, firefighter, artist, acrobat, scientist, and ninja.
Which one of those is my gender?
On the playground, I play tiger-family with the other girls. We lay in the grass at the far end of the field, talking about our tiger lives. This is short-lived, before the boys set me straight. Boys are allowed to spend the night, and they do. We play Double Dragon, and I learn that “joystick” is a euphemism.
Is my gender a hardware problem, or a software problem? Is this a bug or a feature? Can I turn it off and back on again?
Dysphoria never takes the time to stop and explain itself. For 35 years, I trust what I’m told about genitals and genders. I never present the clinical criteria. I’m not consistent, insistent, or persistent. I have no hate for these dangly bits – only detached disinterest.
You go your way, and I’ll go mine.
The term cis- means on this side of while trans- means across from – prefixes that describe a relationship between our assigned and subconscious sex. As a trans woman, I live across from the maleness decreed by doctors. I have transitioned – socially, legally, and (in some ways) medically. This is a process that takes years, without a clear start or end.
People often assume cis genders are hardwired, while a trans gender requires explanation and intent. In order to transition, I must look at womanhood and want something about it.
Doctors assign gender based on genitalia, the length of a clit.
Strangers assign gender by the length of my hair, absence of beard, and the cut of my clothes. What we call secondary sex characteristics and presentation. Essentialists would gender me by gonads and reproductive ability. Mom only has a single ovary, and is only half a woman. Olympic organizers relied on the Y chromosome, until it failed them. Now athletes are gendered by their testosterone levels.
We imagine two circles that never cross, equal and opposite. Instead we have infinite bell-curves that only part at the edges. Intrinsic inclinations, and imperfect correlations.
I believe that gender is only a performance as long as my own gender is a performance. Others believe that gender aligns with genitals, because theirs do. It’s hard to look beyond your own experience. I tell Grandma that I’m a cross-dresser.
—Well, of course! You’re an artist, and men’s clothes are so… drab.
I try on dresses, and feelings, and crossing my legs. I try on eyeliner, and soft skills, and knitting in public. I wear nail polish, and colorful scarves. I try it all with a beard, because men can be anything – and if I don’t try, I can’t fail.
Women can be anything too. I move to the city, and start a company. I get divorced, and leave the church. I’m an artist. I’m part of the revolution. I build myself a world without rigid roles – a safe place to be a new man, feminine and free. My friends are queer, and encourage it. I can do anything, and I do.
It only makes the pain worse. The closer I am, the farther I feel.
—I saw your profile picture in high heels.
Have you been exploring bisexuality?
—No. I’m exploring my gender. I can’t find it.
I report in, as my understanding develops:
—Maybe I’m genderqueer.
—What is genderqueer?
—What does it feel like to have a gender?
Mom can talk for hours about the fluid nature of god as mother and father – as masculine and feminine together. Her congregation uses all the pronouns, and all the metaphors. She finds it beautiful, and so do I. We can’t agree on calling it god, but we agree on how it moves. I could sit with her for hours.
—You understand, then. My gender, and your god.
These pronouns don’t contain us.
—Oh. I’m not sure I can think of my son that way.
We talk instead about cycles of abuse, perpetuated through generations.
Erin asks my pronouns. I have no idea. She tries them all, switching mid-sentence. Within a week, the answer is clear. Relief whenever she comes around, and a flinch with every him and his. I don’t understand. I never asked for this.
At a reunion, I tell my family of 60 that I’m trans. I still don’t know what that means. Grandma asks how often I wear dresses. It depends on the weather. She seems happy with that.
—What pronouns should we use?
—She… or they.
—I don’t like they. Are you going to have surgery?
—I don’t… think so?
—Will you still date women?
—Will they still date me?
Grandma has friends on hormones, trans men. It looks hard. Expensive. Awkward.
—I hope you don’t transition. You look so good as a boy.
I’m trying to answer the question, but I’m not sure the words exist. We rely on half-baked metaphors and thought-experiments. Imagine being trapped in a body. Imagine no one sees you. Imagine you could flip a switch. Imagine you always played with dolls. Imagine wanting something else. Imagine experiencing gender. Imagine just knowing. Imagine no other choice. Imagine suicide.
Imagine my gender can’t be captured in a soundbite. Imagine I have agency, but I didn’t make the rules. Imagine I live in the world as it is. Imagine biology is complex and fluid. Imagine social constructs are part of my reality. Imagine I don’t have all the answers.
Have you seen Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns? Transition is basically like that.
All my old raincoats become skin-tight catsuits.
—I’ll admit, I find this “transgender” thing confusing.
—I’m as confused as you are.
I don’t transition to escape social expectations and rigid gender roles. I know better. I have access to the internet. I read all the wrong articles, and watch the wrong movies. Wherever we go, cis people vomit and trans people die.
In this world with rigid gender roles, it’s a miracle that anyone transitions at all.
—Caitlyn plunges in popularity as baby name on Social Security’s list
CBS/AP: May 12, 2017, 12:42 PM
—A lot of parents are naming their babies Kylo
after the new bad guy in ‘Star Wars’
LA Times: May 12, 2017, 4:15 PM
Natalie sets me straight:
—I don’t think I’d make a good woman.
—Women can be anything. Transition first, and then find out what kind of woman you are.
—But… I’ve seen how women are treated.
I call mom:
—I think I’m more binary than I thought. Maybe I am a woman.
—What happens next?
—A new name might help. I’m not sure about the rest.
—We were going to name you Miriam. Or Mary. Mary Sue, or Miriam Suzanne.
Pain isn’t the end of this story. There is a euphoria in putting these pieces back together. I see myself in the mirror for the first time, just a glimpse. I can never go back. I start hormone replacement as an experiment.
It’s a slow magic.
A fog lifts.
I uncover ancient dys- and euphorias, buried deep. Suddenly, surgery makes sense to me. Not for gender roles, or beauty, or sex, or the revolution. There is no right way to have a body. This is for me, and cannot be put into words.
I call mom:
—Some people will struggle with this.
—What are they resisting?
—It’s the same way they feel about tattoos. Permanent changes to your body.
—Like having an ovary removed?
—Maybe it’s harder when it’s on the outside.
—Great! I’ll move it to the inside!
I am a biological woman, because all women are organisms.
I am a natal woman because all women are born.
Somewhere along the way, I must have discovered the difference between feeling constricted by the trappings of gender, and feeling mis-identified in the gender itself – but I can only point at this distinction as it fades into my past. Somewhere back there, I tried both and they were different.
Painting my nails did not make me a woman. Neither did hormones, or the F on my ID. I don’t have to become a woman at all. I just have to accept it.
The trans woman experience is not identical to the cis woman experience, like a white woman’s experience is different from a black woman: and poor women, and rich women, and tall women, and short. Until one of us achieves that ideal platonic womanhood, we’ll all just have to live at our intersections.
I ask my friends and family:
—If we lived in that world without gender roles, would you still be a woman?
Some would, others wouldn’t. Everyone assumes their experience is universal.
Maybe the answer is that simple:
Before transition I could wear dresses and makeup, but I was always seen as a man. Now I wear jeans and let my nails chip, but I’m still a woman.
The roles are still too rigid, and the revolution continues. I don’t need to understand it. My faith has made me whole.