Penny's Story

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Archive for Gender

Transsexuals Reinforce Sexism

One of those pesky issues that transsexualism bumps up against is sexism. My transsexualism was very much physically based. What I mean by that is that while it’s true that a large part of my dysphoric feelings were around my gender presentation and perception, in retrospect it seems that an even bigger part of my issue was around my body. I hated my body; well, certain parts, but I think my meaning is clear. When I was very young I was aware that I hated parts of my body. It was young enough that I’m fairly certain that it was a literal example of a “girl brain [or soul] in a boy body.” And that very concept is what I want to talk about.

I’m going to talk about this in a fairly loosey-goosey sort of way. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, and so everything I say should be taken as my opinion and my sense of understanding of the biologic and neurological studies I have read mixed with personal experience. Again, take it for what it’s worth.

So, that’s sort of a problematic concept, eh? “Girl brain” implies “boy brain.” That feels one step away from reinforcing lots of sexist dogma that usually posits males as superior to females. There are some studies that seem to be showing some interesting differences, though, between males and females, especially in an area of the brain called the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis. Transsexuals appear to have that part of the brain that more closely aligns to the sex they perceive themselves to be. The studies are painfully small, and jumping to solid conclusions from these studies feels like it may be premature. And yet, it’s difficult for me not to latch onto these studies and scream: “See? This is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you all.”

However, and this is super important, for every study that I’ve seen that shows differences between the brains of males and females, there is another study diminishing the differences and pointing out overlaps that calls into question just how much difference there really is.

Shouldn’t that call my narrative of having been born with a girl brain in a boy body into question?

I don’t think so, and here’s why:

Studies like these are usually about finding averages and ranges. It doesn’t surprise me for a second that there would be overlaps in studies like this, especially at the edges. Just as the average male has more upper body strength than the average female, that doesn’t really tell us much about a random male and a random female. So, too, I believe that just because there is separation in the averages, the very fact that there is overlap between the brains of males and females in most structures means that making too many assumptions about specific males and females is fraught with difficulty.

At this point, I believe our brains are incredibly complex and unique. There are so many different parts that make each of us who we are that there is bound to be differentiation as well as similarity. Picking out the specific elements that make each of us who we are is probably a little ways off. What I know is I believe that I was born with the relevant parts of my brain in the female range, and probably so far into the female range as to be outside the overlap between female and male; every study I’ve read, and everything I’ve ever felt has lead me to this conclusion.

So, we have one over-simplification out of the way, here’s another: I feel like a woman. I have no idea what that statement means. A thing that hung me up in my transition was trying to figure out what the heck “feeling like a woman” meant. It seems a ridiculous statement to me in so many ways. And yet, it’s the only way I can say it: I feel like a woman; I feel that I am a woman. A critique I’ve seen of this is that if I felt that I was Napoleon or a panda bear, it would be obvious that I was suffering from some sort of delusion. But those are false analogies; Napoleon was a specific person, and people aren’t panda bears. Males and females are biologically very similar, and are the same species, having a little separation in a place where there is often overlap in an unusual direction doesn’t seem that far a stretch. I’ve made my peace with the fact that some folks will think I’m crazy. I must note that any “crazy” I had in my personality really seems to have largely abated since my transition. Any anxiety and depression issues that I had seem tied to the fact that I was living the wrong life in the wrong body. My own empirical evidence seems to confirm that, for me, transition was the right thing to do and affirms the concept that I do feel like a woman and have a female brain. [I’m aware that a sample size of 1 is sort of worthless, but then I’m only talking about my life.]

So, from a biological and neurological standpoint, I don’t believe that transsexualism reinforces sexism. Yet, I’m very sympathetic to the notion that somehow, in some way, my transition spells out a certain delineation between men and women, and even male and female, that could be seen as problematic. During my transition, I recall vividly feeling the world change how it treated me, as people’s perception of my gender started to catch up with my identity. It would be dishonest of me to not say that I noticed what I considered a shocking amount of sexism in the world. However, as I have learned to navigate the world around me better over the last several years, I feel that the sexism I see, while certainly a problem, isn’t quite as overwhelming as I perceived at first. I believe that sexism is one of those pesky, nuanced issues that simply can not be reduced to one-dimensional concepts like “the patriarchy.” Just as I referenced earlier in the biological sense, there is a lot of overlap; the simple reality is that socially there is much blurring between the genders and much picking and choosing that people are able to do when presenting themselves. Is it a perfect balance? No, certainly not, but I don’t believe it’s as bad as it is often portrayed to be.

I don’t want to turn this into an examination of sexism itself. As I said, there is overlap and gaps and places where men and women, and male and female are barely distinguishable, and places where the differences are extreme. Sometimes the separations are benign, and sometimes they are very problematic. For me to deny that would be for me to deny all my learning and life experience up until this point.

Back to those overlaps and areas of separation. It is exactly those areas of separation, specifically within the brain, that I believe the pivotal trigger for transsexualism lives. I believe that I was always a girl and then woman. I believe that my social, presentational transition was about catching people up to who I really was. I didn’t transition from a man to a woman, I stopped being afraid and pretending to be something I’m not. Physically, at least in an outward sense, it’s fair to say that my transition was more about going from one side to the other. And yet, even in the physical sense, it seems like my body has always been in that area of the overlap and / or separation that would be comfortably in the female range. (I always said that I had my mom’s hips, for example, which is slightly flippant, but only slightly, as I’m using it as a concrete example to illustrate that there was always plenty about my body that landed at least in the middle of the spectrum, if not firmly in the female end.)

So, what about genetics? What about chromosomes? What about genitals? Well, unlike many folks with transsexualism, I have had my karyotype tested, and it is, in fact, XY. To some, this is exactly the evidence needed to declare me insane. From my perspective, though, it is exactly the proof that sex and gender are much more complicated than eighth-grade biology would have us all believe. As for genitals, I was born somewhere in that very broad range that is referred to as “ambiguous genitalia.” I had my first reconstructive genital surgery when I was three years old. What I was left with was also pretty well within what people would expect as male. Again, to me, that just lends evidence to the complexity and variance that describes the fullness of the human experience. Reading the science that is available, it’s clear to me that we still have more to learn, but it’s also clear to me that I am not crazy, that my reality, as I describe it, is well within the naturally occurring variation of humanity.

So, while I can understand the perspective that my transition and life somehow reinforces sexism and sexist principles, I just can’t see it that way. If we admit that sexism is a problem (and again, while stipulating that it’s a very large, very messy, exceptionally nuanced issue, I think it is), I believe that people born with transsexualism, rather than reinforcing the problem, can be exemplars of how similar men and women, and male and female, truly are. Honestly, I think elite athletes, where the difference between men and women, male and female, is so extremely delineated, as well as sexual procreation and childbirth, which is generally considered an area where male and female are on opposite ends of a spectrum can reinforce some of the negative principles of sexism far more strongly than a person born with transsexualism ever could.

Transgender, Transsexual, and Trans Identity, Labels, and Language

For as long as I can remember, I have found the way that trans* issues are discussed has been wholly unhelpful in describing my own reality and personal story. I’m sure this is true for many people that are lumped into categories by social scientists, but I can only speak on this from personal perspective. While I have noticed heads nodding in agreement many times when I have given voice to these thoughts and theories, I can only talk about how the language around trans* issues has impacted my life, and how it continues to impact my story.

Because I will only be talking about how the language affects me personally, I won’t be commenting much, if at all, on the history and etymology of these terms; I simply don’t care where they came from – I care what they mean (and have meant) to me. Likewise, I will attempt to tackle this language in a way that still leaves plenty of room for people who do find these words helpful in telling their own stories. I will be touching on some of what I perceive as some of the politics around this language, but I will try to do that as carefully as possible. I recognize that it’s possible that my use of this language will feel wrong for some people. I’m not sure I have a solution for that. As always, it is my goal that everyone’s story is respected for its own merit.

First, I’d like to say that I will be adhering to a differentiation between sex and gender; I feel like a big part of my problem around this language is the confusion between “sex” and “gender.” My definitions for each will remain at least partially fluid, as the differences between “male and female” and “man and woman” are so loose as to be nearly impossible to define in ways that don’t produce many overlaps to the point that the terms can become nearly meaningless. Indeed, simply trying to define “male,” for instance, leads to many exceptions. These words are all moving targets. As definitions are refined there is often change in the fundamental meanings of the words themselves. I will endeavor at all times to be clear with my meaning, even if the language is, by it’s very nature, imprecise. For simplicity sake, “sex” will refer to the coarse physical differences between “male and female,” and “gender” will refer to the more sociological and cultural differences between “man and woman.”

Next, I’m choosing to tackle this subject now because it seems as though so much of this language is becoming codified in the popular lexicon. People are aware around this language in a way that I never expected even a few years ago. But that very public awareness is exactly why I feel it’s important for me to speak up now. Frankly, this language has never worked for me; it has never felt comfortable, has never truly felt a useful part of telling my story. If there are people it works for, that’s awesome, but I want to find a way to tell my story authentically, and this language is flawed for that purpose. I don’t care what these words mean for other people, I care about what they mean when I hear and use them. If language is an ongoing discussion, I’m engaging that discussion.

One last thought before I actually dive in. If I were just trying to tell my story in the past tense, I might not care so much about this language. However, I remember all too well the confusion that this language caused when I was in a place that my story was more struggle than it is today. This language is important to me when I try to tell people my story, but also because I firmly believe that I am not alone in being poorly served by this language. If just one person finds some truth or similarity in my story to their own, this will all be worth it.

 

Transgender

Let me start with the big dog: “transgender.” I hate this word. This word has never felt comfortable, or like it describes my life in anyway. If gender is in anyway who we see ourselves to be, I am exactly the same person I always was. That might seem like an absurdity, but any part of me that is the deepest level of “me” has been here all along. Let me dig in a little: my gender, that is “woman” (or, “girl” when I was younger), has always been what it is now. It is fair to say that for a very long time people ~thought~ I was a boy and then man. I mean, goodness, I went to an all-boys Catholic High School after all. But that really gets to two different concepts in my mind. The first is what I’m going to call “gender perception.” This is that instinctual drive that seems present in so many to instantaneously determine someone’s gender. Indeed, often the first fact people will notice about each other is what they believe each others gender to be. People perceived me as a boy and then a man. When this first started happening, I was very young, and certainly not able to piece everything that was going on together, so I believed people. I mean, why would they lie about that? [I know that it’s not lying as much as it was faulty assumptions, but the effect it had on me was as if people had lied to me.] But that colored my way of dealing with the world. I went along with their assumptions for a very long time. That brings me to my next term, which I’ll call “gender presentation.” I ~presented~ as a boy and then a man. I didn’t have the self-awareness or strength to stand up and say that the way people were perceiving my gender was wrong. Which brings me to the third important term around gender, and that is “gender identity,” which is one’s self perception of gender. My gender identity has always been that of a girl then woman. It’s fair to say that I was very confused about that for quite some time, and that I floated along with others perception of my gender, but I was always who I am today, just younger.

My gender never “trans’ed” anything. Indeed, I’m not completely sure what that means. Any way in which I can understand the word “transgender” it just fails to feel like it fits with my life, my story, and my identity [don’t worry, I’ll get to “identity” in a later post]. At no point along my journey have I positively identified as transgender. I have used the word, to be sure, but I’ll save an explanation of that for the wrap-up. It seems to me that “transgender” is trying encapsulate “gender perception,” “gender presentation,” and “gender identity” all under one tag, and that has just never worked for me. During my social transition, I tried to be clear that I was transitioning my gender presentation, and it took a while for people’s perception of my gender to catch up. But my gender identity was consistent throughout (which for me is kind of the whole point). I find transgender to be wholly unhelpful when trying to tell my story.

The current definition of “transgender” seems to be coalescing around the concept of the gender one was “assigned at birth.” I despise this concept. I believe I have a fair sense of what this concept is trying to get at, but I find the thought that my identity would have anything to do with what some person I don’t even know said about me at a time that I was unable to speak extremely distasteful. The very idea that what someone said about me at my birth would be so hugely important about me forever I refuse to accept. More importantly, though, I feel this definition of “transgender” fails to address two of the three issues in play here, those being gender presentation and gender identity, and worse, confuses “sexual perception” [we’ll get to that one in a moment] with gender perception. I just personally detest the word “transgender.”

Likewise, I find that transgender has politically and publicly become a catch-all to lump lots of people together who may have one or two specific things in common, but aren’t really served by being seen as the same thing. This will be my one divergence into how I see this language in a more macro sense, and how I can see this language not working for more people than just me. The term “trans” or “trans*” seemed like an attempt to broaden the reach even further, though I wonder if having words be such loose associations is truly helpful. More and more the only times I see “trans” is when it’s used as a prefix (as in “trans woman” or “trans man”). I find those problematic because they so aggressively segregate a very broad base of women into a specific type, and then over-emphasize the importance of that one fact. [Ironically, “trans” is one of the few words in this group that has ever felt truly useful in telling my own story, but only because its very vagueness was a jumping off point for further discussion.] I know that sometimes joining people together for common cause is helpful, and there seem to be painfully few people for whom any of these words have any personal meaning, but I worry that by loosening definitions so much these terms lose meaning all together. If a collective of folks is trying to be built to guarantee equal rights and promote equal respect for all, I can totally be apart of that. If the aim is to define “transgender” to cover every single instance in which someone’s gender perception / presentation / identity might seem societally “out of alignment,” even briefly, I have trouble supporting that, and I will continue to resist being dragged under that umbrella.

 

Cisgender

I feel like now is a reasonable time to bring up “cisgender.” Cisgender is the supposed corollary to transgender, from the Latin prefix “cis-,” meaning “on this side of.” “Trans-” meaning “across from.” When I first heard “cisgender” several years ago, before it’s current usage was so popularly known, it seemed to me that the definition must be that ones gender perception, presentation, and identity were all in alignment (I remember flippantly saying that the brain and the crotch “match”). This is how I used the term for years, and when I do use it, how I continue to use it. Recently though, the word seems to have been codified around being the oppositional state from transgender, that is, it’s all about what someone said when one was born. So, “cisgender” is when someones gender assigned at birth matches their gender identity. Again, I find the concept of “assigned at birth” repugnant, I simply feel it gives an unacceptable amount of weight to one specific instance before someone is self-aware enough to have any say in the matter. I refuse to accept that as a lifelong statement of my reality. Also, I have the same problem with cisgender that I do transgender, that is it focuses totally on sexual perception (and mistakes it as gender perception) and ignores presentation and identity. I feel that makes the word all but unusable when it comes to my own story; there is no point in using a word if I have to so fully explain it any time I use it. On top of all that, many people who are described as “cisgender” feel that the word is a slur (my brief explanation of at least some of the push back is that “cis-” can sound awfully like “sissy” and be triggering and / or offensive to some folks). I understand the need for a term like “cis-;” it’s necessary to have a way to say “not trans” that doesn’t make trans folk out to be perversions of nature. Here’s a place where my desire for the language differs most extremely from some: I prefer the language of medical malady, of pathologization over that of identity. I don’t have a solution to the fact that I see my transsexualism as a medical condition that I sought treatment for and now see as cured while for so many that language feels uncomfortable. For a while I attended a support group for women like me, and we often struggled to find words for “non-trans-folk.” We struggled through “genetic woman,” “natal woman,” “biological woman,” “cis woman,” and many others. None of them satisfied everyone in the group, though, and in frustration I began using “regular” and “irregular” woman. I was only mostly joking. I’m not sure I have yet hit upon a way to refer to folks as “not trans” that works for me. Again, I suspect that is largely because “trans-” can mean so many different things; it becomes nearly impossible to exclude someone from a group that has so poorly defined boundaries.

 

Assigned at Birth

While I’m here, I want to finish up with “assigned at birth.” I understand the impetus for a term that includes this sort of concept. I think the premise is that the thing that makes trans folk similar is that they spent some time mis-identified in terms of their gender identity or sex identity. I do understand the desire to tie as many people as possible together with seemingly common issues. I understand why that is in some ways politically helpful, though I have found it personally extremely confusing when trying to figure myself out. I feel that the “assigned at birth” paradigm focuses exclusively on ones interaction with society, giving extreme weight to initial (“at birth”) sex perception and gender perception, and ignores ones concept of self and interaction with others.

Finally, it has been extremely unhelpful for me to see the trans part of my story as an integral part of my identity; it is a part of the story, clearly, and is a vital part of my experience and history. However, it has always felt much more comfortable and true to look at the trans part of my story as a medical condition. I know this language decidedly does not work for some people, but thinking of it as a birth defect really works for me. Perhaps a softer way to say it would be that I consider it a congenital neurological issue. I remain unconvinced as to the specific cause, and indeed, I believe that several different issues are at play in various combinations and degrees. I believe that lumping all of these issues into the simplicity of what sex and gender one was assigned at birth causes needless confusion for many.

 

Transsexual

Which is probably a good place to segue into “transsexual.” It has been helpful for me to use “transsexual” quite a bit in describing my story. Transsexual is almost always used to describe sex perception and sex presentation. “Sex perception” I’m using to mean the sex that one is perceived to be by another, and “sex presentation” I’m using as a very coarse differentiation between the physical male and female. “Sex identity,” which is very different from “sexuality,” means the sex organs one feels they should have. This is exactly why I see my story involving a “cure.” My “sex” is exactly what “trans’ed” (specifically my “sex presentation,” coupled with my “sex perception,” my “sex identity” remained fixed). I was born with what would loosely fall under the definition of ambiguous genitalia and I had my first genital surgery when I was three years old. Having said that, it’s fair to say that early on, I was certainly more physically male. Likewise, proving that there is a lot going on here, I have had my karyotype tested and it is indeed XY.

 

[intersex]
[I could possibly assert a thin case to use the term “intersex” to describe myself, but there are three reasons I don’t. First, my level of genital ambiguity was fairly low, and while I did have genital surgery when I was three during which an unidentified “mass” was removed, I feel that the majority of intersex folks I have read about go through much more profound physical trauma at a young age than I did. Second, “intersex” has become a very charged political label (perhaps even more so than “transgender”) and I don’t feel like wading into that minefield. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in this context, the term has never been overly helpful in telling my story; I sometimes will use it for context, and will sometimes allude to the phrase “neurological intersex” (which is also an extremely touchy phrase for some people), but using “transsexual” in the context of a neurological medical condition has been the most effective language.]

 

So then, if “sex” is about physicality, I view my genital reconstruction surgery as having cured my transsexualism. It’s true that I believe this makes me a female with XY chromosomes, but there are many conditions that can lead to this situation, and being born with the wrong genitals is hardly the most unusual.

It seems like lots of folks recoil from “transsexual” because it has the letters “s-e-x” in the middle, and that makes some folk uncomfortable. I find that the willingness to talk directly about the issue is very important for me. I have no shame over my story, and I categorically resist the notion that there is anything wrong with speaking frankly about the human condition.

 

Trans / Trans*

Briefly, I find “trans” and “trans*” to both be so diluted as to be sort of meaningless. They are an attempt to draw everyone who ever uses (or has used) the “trans-” prefix into the same community. I just don’t think that works in a practical sense. The terms are slightly less specific than “human,” but they require so much further clarification and explanation as to make them slow down discussion rather than aid it. They lump everything together: gender and sex, perception, presentation, and identity all into one big commingled lump. I just find it all very confusing.

 

Trans-masculine / Trans-feminine

Recently I’ve become aware of “trans-” being tacked onto “masculine” and “feminine,” as “trans-masculine” and “trans-feminine.” These feel so much like overly manufactured terms. I get what they’re trying to say, that is that a given person is displaying traits of the “other” gender. I feel like these terms muddle the field even further, though, as they add to the discussion the need to understand the specific relevant cultural rules of what constitutes masculine and feminine traits and mannerisms. This adds one more level to these terms that removes them from lived-world experience. Not only that, these two words seem to strongly reify the gender binary [more on “gender binary” soon]. Making ones trans-ness solely based around the gender binary seems all sorts of problematic. I believe it would be much more helpful to work on expanding the concept of “masculine” and “feminine” until they are freely open to all (in reality, everyone is a mix of masculine and feminine traits anyway). Needless to say, I find these terms useless and confusing, not to mention regressive.

 

And the rest

There are other terms: “transvestite,” “crossdresser,” “ hermaphrodite,” “bigender,” “intergender,” “two-spirit,” “she-male,” and a million others. Some of them are seen as slurs by some folks, and some are pretty culturally specific. None of these terms have been terribly useful in telling my story, nor have they really felt like “home,” even though I did try on a couple of them for a time. I tried on “bigender” for about thirty seconds before realizing that it wasn’t a good fit. I tried to use “crossdresser” for longer, but it was clearly never a good fit, and during the whole time I was using it my sense of self was extremely confused.

 

Tranny

I do want to bring up “tranny,” which is very much a hot-button term. “Tranny” is pretty widely viewed as one of the worst of all slurs to use about trans folk of any kind. The problem is that this is the one term that has felt the most comfortable for me all the while. I suppose it’s possible that some of this is due to my contrarian nature, but really I’ve just always found the word playful and light-hearted. I’m well aware of that irony. For many folks the word “tranny” is one of the most hate-filled, dehumanizing words they can hear. I have a problem with the concept of “bad words,” but I do recognize the power of this word, and I do try to be circumspect around its use, though I do still use it.

 

Last thoughts

There are three terms / phrases I want to bring up that will later be explored in more depth, but I feel are important to at least mention here. The first is the phrase “born in wrong the body.” This phrase has always resonated with me: my body was broken, and I fixed it to the current ability of medical science. I have a vivid memory of someone saying that this statement was untrue about transsexualism. This was at a time when I was still trying to figure things out, and I remember thinking, “Well, if transsexualism ~doesn’t~ mean ‘born in the wrong body,’ then I must not be a transsexual.” I understand this phrase is anathema to some people, but for me it has been very helpful. Of course, it’s not a perfect or literal phrase, but it helped to figure out what was going on in my head. The next phrase, which is similarly flawed while still being very useful, is “feel like a woman.” This one always held me up; I still don’t know what it means to “feel like a woman,” I just feel like me. However, this over-simplified, fairly corny phrase was actually a useful jumping off point for me; it enabled me to open the door to really get at what was going on. I remember when I was much younger having the thought “I think I’m a girl,” but that was always overwhelming; I just couldn’t process that or ask for help. “Feeling like a woman,” while being an almost silly thought, really was helpful. Lastly is “cure.” Here’s another one that seems to cause a lot of controversy. As I said above, for me, the concept that this was something that was ~wrong~ with me that I needed to “cure” was what made (and makes) the most sense. I understand that the idea of pathology doesn’t work for many people, but it’s the only way of thinking about it that works for me. I’ve heard it said that if one was born trans, then you’ll always be trans. I’m here to say that’s not true. I am not trans anymore.

 

Why

So, if I’m not trans anymore, if I’m cured of my transsexualism, why talk about this? Shouldn’t I leave it to the people who are either still living their struggle or who see these terms as more of an ongoing identity? No, I don’t believe I should. I have observed so many women like me, that is, post-corrected, hetero-normative, women who blend into society drift away from these discussions. I feel it’s important to have my voice be part of the discussion. Honestly, I firmly believe that there are still little girls and boys as confused as I was, who continue to be under-served by the language as it stands. And I believe the language is only moving away from these kids as well. The language seems to work well for many, but I feel like the language literally held me back, and I think we can do better.

The other reason to continue talking about this part of my story is that it is simply that: a part of my story. I am tired of being scared or ashamed of my past. I’m tired of thinking that if people know about my past that it will change how they feel about me. I’m tired of not talking about certain subjects because I’m not supposed to. I need this language because my ex-wife is still my best friend. I need this language because I refuse to deny my friends from my all-boys Catholic High School. I need this language to tell my story, my whole story.

 

Hypocrite

But, wait, some of those who know me have heard me refer to myself as “trans” or “transgender.” What gives? I was even in a major newspaper letting them call me “transgender.” Am I really that big a hypocrite? Well, maybe. The truth is that sometimes I need to explain certain parts of my story briefly, and the reality is that people are starting to know the words “trans” and “transgender.” Whenever I can, I make it clear to people how uncomfortable I am with those terms. A big part of the reason I’m engaging in this discussion is because I sometimes find myself forced to use these words because there are none better. I’ve used the phrase “woman of transsexual history” before, but, while that feels more accurate, it’s about as inelegant a turn of phrase as I’ve ever heard. My current approach seems to be to not really talk about it with people too much until I have time to actually explain things fully, in a way that feels authentic.
Closing

Finally, I know that my preferred language feels uncomfortable for others. I know that some women and men who choose different or fewer or no surgical options often find the concept of a “post-corrected” woman difficult. I understand that some people refuse to accept that I have been cured. I get that “transgender” seems to work for so many people. I’m not sure what to say about that; I am trying to positively, definitively, and intentionally tell my story. It is not my intention to invalidate the stories of others. I am hoping that this language continues to grow to tell all types of stories.

My Transgender Day of Remembrance Remarks

Tonight my church hosted the twelfth annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston. I was one of the speakers, welcoming folks on behalf of my church. Here are my remarks:

 

Good evening. Thank you for coming, and welcome to my home.

 

I showed up on these steps four years ago, less than six months after my transition, and I was welcomed as an equal sister. I drum here, and I worship here. The Crossing community has prayed for me and laid hands on me during my process. They have marched with me and lobbied with me. This past Easter Bishop Shaw received me into the Episcopal Church as I delivered the sermon during the Cathedral’s Easter Vigil. I feel blessed and humbled to be a part of The Crossing community, and I am profoundly moved that my family is helping to host this Transgender Day of Remembrance.

 

As you know, this is a somber time, when we remember those that have been lost in the last year to violence. Sometimes the price is high when one lives an authentic life. There is fear, and misunderstanding, and hatred. Whatever the number of people we recognize this evening as lost during this last year, I suspect that the true number is higher. We simply are the victims of violence far more often than could be explained by mere random chance. We are targeted.

 

I have a dear friend who wonders why we do this every year, I believe she says something to the effect that we are celebrating our victim hood. And I admit that the heaviness of this day weighs upon me, even though this is only my fifth Transgender Day of Remembrance. It might be easier to just let this day slide by with barely a notice, to pretend that a day to remember our dead was unnecessary. But then the easy thing isn’t always the right thing. So while I’m very happy to have been involved with a special open mic night co-hosted by The Crossing and Transcriptions as part of Trans Awareness week, which was far more positive and celebratory, I think the importance of this night can not be overstated.

 

This past August, I volunteered at the inaugural season of Camp Aranu’tiq, a camp specifically for trans and gender-variant kids between the ages of 8-15. I got pretty attached to those kids, and I’m sure I’ll be back next year. Those kids were amazing, and it was a joy to be around them. This is our next generation. Many of them were experiencing the thrill of being themselves for the very first time at camp. Those kids just want to live happy lives being the people they truly are.

 

But the reality is stark. And the world that exists presents all sorts of difficulties for those who are perceived as different from some arbitrary standard. I want the world that those kids grow into to be so much closer to perfect than the world I grew up in, and yes, even the world as it stands now. I want those kids to grow into a world where they won’t have to go to a camp to be met with unconditional understanding and acceptance. My mother, when I was very little, taught me to always know that I am no better than anyone else, and I am no worse. I believe that we can all live together, celebrating each others similarities while basking in our uniqueness.

 

And so it is on this night, more than any other, that it becomes of paramount importance that we stand to fear and hatred, whether from within or without, and refuse to be anything less than our full selves. It is on this night that we should embrace the rich diversity that exists within our world of community, allies, supporters, friends, family, and loved-ones. It is on this night that we must change the world.

 

Thank you for joining us!

 

Outing to the Darling Boyfriend’s Mom – part 2

So, I’m out. Or, I guess, we’re out.

I suppose it went well, but I’m painfully aware of why so many folks with trans histories keep that to themselves and never tell anyone. The questions about growing up “as a boy” and such are just really painful. I was never a boy. I was never a guy. I was never a man. Lots of people, myself included, mistook me for those things, but I never was any of those things. But explaining that is really Trans 201 (or perhaps even 301), and so when outing to someone with not much experience dealing with trans folk, questions and assumptions like that come up. And some of them did.

We went for a bike ride with the Darling Boyfriend’s mom, and while we were sitting by the beautiful water view, we made our move. Somehow we started talking about sports. I mentioned that I played baseball and basketball – the “tomboy” sorts of sports. The Darling Boyfriend said that at the time I may not have been thought of as a tomboy. He paused, and we exchanged a look, my look basically conveyed, “Go for it.”

And oh he did.

So out he comes with, “You see, Penny was born with ambiguous genitalia.”

Wow. Really? He went right to the genitals? Wow.

Yep, ~that’s~ my boyfriend.

I curled up in a ball (as much as I could sitting on a bench), but his mom was really sweet. She patted my leg and said something about family secrets. We went through the whole thing. That I transitioned about four years ago. That I had a surgery when I was 3. That I was married to a woman. That I went to an all-boys Catholic High School. That my friends were all beautiful and lovely during my transition.

She said, “So when you were little, you were a little drummer boy.”

Ugh.

I hate that.

She also kept saying that it was very interesting. I ~hate~ being interesting because of this.

I’m not mad at her or anything for the few statements like that. She was actually incredibly lovely and understanding. We sat on the bench and chatted for quite a while. The Darling Boyfriend’s father actually went to high school with someone who went on to become one of the first “big famous” transsexuals, which was really ironic (no, I’m not saying who it was). It’s just really tiring to deal with stuff like that. It brings me back to the time when people ~did~ think I was a boy. It’s just pretty painful to remember and face. But seriously, his mom was lovely. The Darling Boyfriend’s impression was that it went as well as it could have. I guess that I’d say that I agree with that assessment.

So, our plan is to have her spread it to the rest of the family. We haven’t asked her yet, and I’m not sure how she’ll feel about being enlisted in the outing process. I think she’ll be fine.

So, I’m out to his mom, and it seems like all is well. Yay.

Outing to the Darling Boyfriend’s Mom – part 1

So, tomorrow’s the day that the Darling Boyfriend and I tell his mom (and, by extension, his family) about my medical history of transsexualism. We’ve decided that it’s time to tell them for a few reasons. Our relationship has reached a point where it makes sense for us to be planning for a potentially long life together. We’ve both starting to seriously consider the possibility of growing old together. This, as the Darling Boyfriend says, is a way of increasing our level of intimacy. There are also day-to-day practicalities. I’m annoyed that I can’t share with them the joys of the camp for trans youth that I volunteered at this past summer, or the Laramie Project panel of which I was a part, or, more so, that my ex-wife is reduced to being labeled as “one of my best friends.” As much as that is true, she is a best friend, it changes the context to know that she and I were married. Finally, and I guess the deciding element is what has been happening to Nikki Araguz. When that story broke I joked with the Darling Boyfriend that I wanted his family to sign an affidavit saying that they know about my history. I do not ~ever~ want to be accused of deceiving anyone. To say nothing of it being just in my nature to be fully open and honest about my life with the people that are close to me. I’m getting closer to his family, so it’s time.

I confess to being a bit apprehensive about this decision. This is the first time I will be outing myself to loved ones in quite a while. I out myself all the time, but nowadays I seem to be outing myself more and more to strangers, and their opinions naturally mean less than those of people I care about. So the stakes are higher than they’ve been in some time. Also, the Darling Boyfriend has never really outed himself about anything, so this is totally new territory for him. He has cutely thought that it might come up in conversation the other times I’ve visited his family; to which I’ve asked the question: “How often do your parents ask about your girlfriend’s genitals?” It just doesn’t come up,and so it hasn’t. So we’re taking the bull by the horns and doing this as an intentional act.

I expect it will go fine. His mom is a lovely and intelligent woman. His family is quite liberal and supportive of gay civil rights. They are open-minded and not bigoted in any way that I’ve seen. Blah, blah, blah. And yet, I’ve been surprised before. The thing I’ve learned through all of my experiences with coming out is that it is unpredictable. People will have their reactions to knowing about my trans experience; sometimes the reactions are visceral, emotional. The Darling Boyfriend has two sisters and a brother. Each of them have a son. His nephews are every conceivable age: 2, 12, and 18. It’s quite possible that could color his family’s reactions. Still, we have to do the best job we can of telling my, and our, story, and then let them react as they will. That is what it is, and I can’t help that. I can only be me.

It’s possible that they will wonder why we waited so long to share this news with them. I guess to that I would say that, as the Darling Boyfriend says, this is about my personal medical history, and that’s not always something that people reveal instantaneously. The Darling Boyfriend feels that now is the time, and as this is his family, I have been letting him drive the bus on the timing of this decision. It’s also possible that they will wonder why they needed to be told at all, and I guess I feel like I addressed those reasons in my first paragraph.

Now’s the time.

There is also the irony of October 11th being National Coming Out Day. We’ll be a day early.

So, wish us luck.

😉

Me and Old Photos

I’m sure I’ve written about pictures before, but it seems to come up from time-to-time. It’ll probably come up less and less, but there will always be a gigantic gap in my photographic history. At least the part I’m excited about looking at or comfortable displaying. In the last few days I’ve been hanging some pictures on the wall in my living room. There used to be a big mirror there. And then I decided that pictures would look nicer there, so I got this huge mosaic print with all these different pics of me and my ex boyfriend. It was something like 40”x60”. Naturally, when the ex went, so did the pic. Which left the wall over my couch empty. It stood like that for quite a while.

One of the things that the Darling Boyfriend has been requesting, in the pursuit of making my house more his home, has been to hang some pictures of his family on the wall. I realized that the living room wall would make a great place for pictures of important people. I can procrastinate, and I have, but I’ve finally gotten around to the project.

I’ve been hanging and sorting pictures for the last couple days. I have tons of pictures of my family from both my mom’s childhood and my grandparents’ childhoods. I have some pictures that are so far back that I’m not even sure who the people are. I have pictures of my parents’ wedding, my grandfather’s soccer team, and my grandmother’s confirmation, among lots of others. There are now tons of pictures on my wall, with a few more to be hung. It makes me feel so good having friends and family on my wall; it makes me feel as though they’re always with me.

As I go through old pictures, though, it always hits me anew: I’m really uncomfortable with lots of the pictures of me. There are pictures with my mom, and my grandparents, and my ex-girlfriends, and old friends, and my ex-wife, and even one with my dad. And I look at them all, and I feel disconnected from them in a way that just stinks. I look at the man I tried to be, and I barely know that person. I look happy in lots of the pictures, and as much as I was broken before, it’s nice to know that I did have some happy moments. But I have trouble recognizing the person in the pictures; I know it was “me,” but it doesn’t ~feel~ like me. And that makes some of the pictures feel foreign in a way that’s uncomfortable, and perhaps difficult to explain. Hanging pictures of me and my mom, or me and my gram, or me and my grampa, or me and any of my old bands, or me and any of my ex-girlfriends, or me and my ex-wife just seems wrong. Not wrong in the sense of a bad thing, just wrong in the sense that when I look at those pictures I don’t feel the connections between me and those people – I just see the pain I used to be in. I see these pictures and I wonder what could have been if I had been right all along. Maybe I would never have met some of these people, but maybe we would have had relationships that were even better. Maybe my ex-wife and I would have just been best friends all along. Maybe my mom would have had a daughter right from the start to dress in frills and bows. Maybe I’d have married and not gotten divorced and already have my family.

See?

The pictures trigger some heavy, not-entirely pleasant lines of thought.

And I’m not even really talking about how I look in those pics. Bluntly: I look like a guy.

I have some friends who can be so unabashed about displaying pictures of themselves before their transitions when they have beards and the like, but I just can’t do that. But some pictures of me pre-transition have made it on the wall. There’s a couple of me and my mom when I was very little, and my parents’ wedding picture. And I realized that it seems like facial and body hair are the biggies for me. When I look at pictures of myself when I was very young, I can see a girl dressed like a boy. I joke that I was butch, and such a tomboy, and that my mom was so silly dressing me in blue. But once my hair issues began, it’s hard to look at those pics and see ~me~. And so there are no pictures of me from when I was 13 (my parents’ wedding) until I was 36 on my wall. It’s a big gap in the “history of me.”

And I can be sanguine, and say that I do love my life right now, and I do. But I would be wicked lying if I said that those pictures didn’t remind of the way things were to supposed to have been.

And I really hate that I don’t have any pictures of me with my gram.

But the wall looks very nice.

Reclaiming the Flannel

When I was in high school, I wore flannel shirts almost every day. It was a Catholic school for boys. The dress code was pretty chill: shirts with a collar (pretty much of any kind) and pretty much any kind of pants besides jeans. I got sick of flannel shirts, but they were good at hiding my breasts, and so I wore them a lot.

I still wore them after high school, though with much less frequency.

I have not worn a flannel shirt since my transition.

Until the other day in Atlanta.

The Darling Boyfriend let me borrow one of his shirts to bring with me to Dragon*Con. He doesn’t wear flannel too much, but he let me choose from a few shirts, and this one just seemed snuggy. I wore it as a jacket on our last night in Atlanta when we went out to a pub for dinner. I had reservations about wearing it. It’s amazing how much emotional weight an article of clothing can carry. Flannel shirts are strongly associated with high school for me, one of the worst times in my life – and one of the periods when I was most trapped and repressed and shame-filled. So it was with some trepidation that I put that shirt on and wore it out.

I actually thought, at least in the deep recesses of my brain, that a flannel shirt would suddenly make people see me as a boy again. Perhaps I’m making a mountain of a molehill, but I was worried about being mistaken for a man when I put the shirt on.

But then we got to the restaurant, and it was all, “Hi ladies.” And the like. And all was well.

It’s funny that I still have worries sometimes. And yet, it’s only been four years since I transitioned, and it had been 36 years of trying to present as a man, so it makes sense that some of those fears would be deep enough to surface every now and again. Especially when there’s something that has a strong association with the Before Time.

Flannel. Powerful stuff. Who knew?

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