What’s an Indigenous trans femme to do: T4M-29-Seeking Productive Politics

The title of this article comes from a conversation with an ex partner. He was a non-Indigenous (white) cis male who had been a major part of my life for a year. Part of our relationship was the exchange of our writing, something I valued in him because he provided excellent feedback and helped me craft some of the best work I’ve written in my career. It was a model for me of how Indigenous women and non-Indigenous men could collaborate through intimate relationships in a meaningful and decolonial way. When he ended our relationship, the part I missed the most was our shared literary work and the space it represented to me.

On our second date, he forgot I was Indigenous and included me in his description of “white” people. I corrected him immediately and he apologized, but I never forgot that erasure. I was just starting my transition when we met and still had a masculine presentation. On the same date, he asked me incredulously “but you don’t really want to be a woman, do you?” as if my gender presentation was a gimmick without any substance. I was shocked and didn’t know how to respond. Part of that comment was the revelation that he didn’t see me as a woman now, much less in the future. Who did he think I was? A white man playing at being girl as a social performance?

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The two erasures are linked. Erasing me as an Indigenous woman because of my skin tone and erasing me as a woman because of my appearance are the same violence with different histories. In my romantic life, I negotiate both of these realities. Like many Indigenous and trans women, I used to assume that education and empathy would gradually break down the misconceptions between us and allow for a relationships beyond those categories. I learned from him that I was wrong. No matter how much of my body and experiences I shared with him, he never changed the fundamental ways he interacted with me. No matter how brilliant and beautiful my art was, no matter how much I called him out on various comments, no matter how loving or embracing I was of his experiences, I never became a girl in his mind and he never accounted for the legacy of colonization in our relationship.

I wouldn’t want to present him as a foil for all masculine and white violence. He isn’t. In many ways, he was an ally to me in my transition and someone I was very close to. I was not always “perfect” in our relationship. As a survivor of inter-generational abuse, I did some shitty things as well and there were moments when I didn’t respect his identities as fully as I should have. The unfortunate reality is that he did, for better or worse, teach me more about male female relationships than any other partner, despite how much he insisted on being simply an individual free of gender and history. I’m sorry, but we’re never free unless we do the work to be free. And we didn’t manage to do that together.

On the last night we hung out, he asked me if I thought him fucking me would validate me as a woman. I sat across from him, our legs intertwined, in the same shock and hurt as before. How could he ask me this question? He knew how strongly I feel my femininity as an inherent and constant part of my soul. The more I’ve sat with the question since it happened, the greater my discomfort with it has become. The real question embedded in his question is “does my fucking you invalidate my masculinity because you are an inferior woman?”. What was under interrogation wasn’t my gender or desire, but his. In the same conversation, he told me that it was just me and him in the room. The rest of the world which you always bring up doesn’t matter here, he said, placing his hands on my thighs. Except it does, my mind screamed back, it is in everything you ask me and how you relate to my body.

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This sits at the heart of relationships between white cis men and Indigenous trans women. History is always present in love, the history of genocide in Canada and the history of transphobia against trans women. This is inescapable and often the work of unpacking this legacy falls on us as Indigenous trans women, as our partners reflect back the violence to us in unintentional ways. No matter how much we love them or they love us (and there was love between us), we can’t be intimate with our partners without an explicit recognition of that fact. More importantly, empathy and awareness of Indigenous and trans history/violence doesn’t translate to a productive politics between white cis men and Indigenous trans women. We face the same challenge in reconciliation as the nation state of Canada does with Indigenous nations. In order to reconcile, white cis men and Canada have to give up the benefits they get from our oppression. And they don’t want to.

Why? Because fundamental expression of masculinity and whiteness in Western culture is the ability to take and harm without accountability. To fuck and be intimate without equal reciprocation. To be a white man, in charge, ego protected, ready to run at the moment fucking a girl stops being “easy”.  Question that and you can often pay with your life as an Indigenous trans woman. In my case, the punishment was just emotional harm which I’m grateful for. (what’s more disturbing : that I’m sincerely grateful he didn’t physically harm me when he ended our relationship or I still describe him as a good guy despite the many incidents of transphobia/misogyny because he never hit me?)

Building a healthy and loving bond between a white cis man and an Indigenous trans femme requires the partner with the most power to surrender that power. White cis men often don’t surrender power in intimate relationships, partly because their masculinity is tied up in that power and it’s hard. Quite frankly, few men, white or cis or any other combination, have tremendous privilege to walk away from situations which challenge their behavior. They can inflict harm without repercussions and rarely take accountability. They don’t have to. The system allows them to cycle female partners, valuing the sweet and non-confrontational partners while demonizing and shaming the powerful female partners who ask for better treatment.

So what’s an Indigenous trans femme to do? She doesn’t have to do anything. The work of building a productive politics is shared, but the work required to come to an intimate relationship with an Indigenous trans femme is not her work to undertake. I often say to my partners to come to me with a solution, not a problem. To come to my body with an acceptance, not a question. To let me be present in the space between us as more than an inspiration or an education. To entirely embrace me as a woman and act accordingly. This is the first step to addressing history. In return, I will meet them halfway with my own work and reciprocation.

Maybe that’s the impossible dream. While Canada talks about reconciliation and understanding Indigenous nations, they are stealing our land, murdering our sisters, and underfunding our child welfare and health care systems. While my partners are talking about feminism and trans inclusive Queer identity, they are enacting violence on female partners with no accountability and denying my inherent womanhood. The duality of these forces can’t be denied. This has always been the central conflict in Canada, the mythology of political tolerance and good morals meeting the reality of genocide and violence. I’m not angry with my ex partners. In some way, I understand and love them still. There were some beautiful and healing moments.

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But what’s it like to date as an Indigenous trans femme? It’s similar to what dating is like as any kind of woman, but with extra layers of transphobia and colonial thought. After the first time we were physical intimate, he told me he was curious about what my breasts felt like and part of me died. That’s not something you say to a cis girl. Here I am, sharing the most vulnerable part of my body, and his response is to turn me into an exhibit, an experiment. I don’t think he meant to, in the same way that I don’t think that Canadians don’t always mean to be racist to Indigenous peoples, but the outcome is the same. Productive politics? Not until my partners learn to be vulnerable in their masculinity and surrender some of the power it gives them, because I certainly won’t be surrendering my power to resist, question, and lovingly assert my sovereignty over my body and intimacy. I’m a kinda of a bitch like that. I inherited it from my gookum and after all, this is still my land we’re fucking on.

 

 

 

Phoniex

I am tired of explaining the fire.

it burns because it must.

 

each flame is a small destiny

igniting in the heat of our bodies.

 

this is what you touched,

what seared us in the dark of my bedroom.

 

twin flames, reaching out.

your hands squeezing embers, sparking.

 

now we’re immolated,

now we have scars which can’t fade.

 

graft new skin to the raised edges

of our mouths. I will not burn for you again.

 

what we brought is not what we asked for.

 

someday I will forgive you in a forest,

release the unanswered words.

 

someday you will forgive me under a mountain,

the wounded echoes.

 

one day we will walk over coals,

we will call lightening,

 

learn to pray inside love’s furnace

without being consumed,

 

but I can only be this sudden torch.

you see me now or you never will.

 

somewhere on your palm, a streak of me

glimmers underneath calluses.

 

I brand you as holy.

 

few parts of me are left unchanged

but this light remains:

 

wildfire, brushblaze, starburnt,

this girl is a phoenix.

 

you can’t touch me without burning.

 

2.

the first time I slept over,

5 months into love

 

I slipped out of your bed

while you were sleeping

 

made my way across the city

to home, regretting it

 

the further I went

from you.

 

you didn’t say anything

just you woke up

 

wondered where I was,

I never thanked you

 

for the way you held

the animal in me

 

without asking what

made me wild.

 

3.

 

you broke up with me

through a voicemail

 

after your friends found out,

denying me with a violence

 

I still carry.

 

4 years later you return,

both of us in relationships

 

we fuck in my apartment

under snowfall then don’t speak

 

for 3 more years.

 

I dream of you

when I start hormones

 

so I write you a letter,

you reply apologizing

 

for every time you left me.

 

is it my love or yours

which breaks us?

 

we never learn our twin hearts,

this sudden sparking

 

brings us ashes.

 

we talk about meeting

in Ottawa as if we dare

 

to cross the wires

of ourselves again.

 

we pretend the wound is closed.

 

it never ends in us

but you mention the hours

 

we spent talking in university

and I miss us, even though

 

I know we’re already ten years dead.

 

4.

my therapist asks me to write

words to describe my lovers

 

intelligent, feminine, guarded

sexual, kind, wounded.

 

she asks me to describe myself

but I use the same words.

 

what did you want from them?

to be free, to be safe, forgiveness.

 

what did they want from you?

the same things, I guess

 

how did they see you?

fearless, inspirational, stubborn.

 

do you think that true?

yes and no but I forgive them.

 

forgive them for what?

never giving me what I gave them.

 

what did you give?

everything.

a love letter for trans girls

welcome to the first day of forever.

you will feel an ocean inside your chest, a dark current of salt and plastic water bottles. you will feel tidal waves lift and fall when you try to sleep tonight. you will hear the slow rust song of oilers and scientific vessels. you will feel sonar pinging off every small ache. you will not think this is possible. you will not think you are possible. you are. you are the ocean and the possible and every body which dives deeper than we can see.

you will lie to doctors. they will ask you to describe feelings you do not have words for. they will make you sign a waiver absolving them of any outcomes. they will make you wait for months and offer your blood to medical divination. they will think they control your destiny but remember, you own your body always. you will tell them what they want to hear. you will tell everyone what they want to hear. you will slip past their fences and their gates. you will climb walls, you will steal yourself back from laboratories and therapists. this does not make you a liar or a thief but a heroine.

there will be wildfires. friends will catch blaze and burn away. your house will disintegrate into smoke. the first time someone calls you a tranny on the street, you will imagine a cavern opens up beneath you. you will feel your skin blister from the stares of strangers. you will live inside a constant fear which no one will understand. you will learn to walk fast, to not make eye contact, to listen to the same song on maximum volume with ear buds. I recommend Personal Jesus but you will find your anthem. when the fires leave, there will be a long winter. you will taste frost every morning. wait for spring.

death will come knocking. he will find you between midnight and 4 am. you will plan every moment of the next year in detail. you will keep spreadsheets in your head of what you can afford to change and what you have to learn to love. you will make suicide notes more than once. you will know girls who kill themselves or are killed. you will live with their ghosts, the shadows of their death chasing you home. you will see icons of woman burning up in their transness. learn from their light but do not try to imitate it. your star will not be theirs. it will be brighter.

boys will say they’re curious about girls like you. girls will dance with you at parties but never follow through. lovers will hurt you in ways you didn’t know could hurt. boys will not fuck you but sometimes they will only fuck you. the balance of this is always violence. girls will fuck you but not introduce you to their Queer friends. the balance of this is always violence, you will always wonder if he’s fucking you because you’re trans or if she won’t fuck you because you’re trans. the truth doesn’t matter as much as how it will make you doubt yourself. remember that your lovers can only embrace you when they learn to embrace themselves. remember you do not carry the weight of their desire. do not make yourself more feminine to comfort them. do not perform your body. be a holy place only the blessed can enter.

you will learn how to walk as if lightening trails your steps. you will become a storm cloud in the night. you will turn into a spring rain. one day you will wake up and realize your body is a wild land. you will change faster than you can name. you will learn yourself through bad nights and mistakes. you are a woman becoming a girl becoming a woman. this is the most sacred celebration of the universe which we know. move between bodies in snatches of sunlight. trace your new skin and remember you still know how to feel pleasure. they will not take this from you.

there will be a day when you will forget how much this hurt. you will get through laser sessions and electrolysis. it will hurt more than anyone tells you but don’t be afraid. meditate on marsha p johnson as the machine sings. visualize candy darling laughing in an alleyway. channel janet mock on late night talk shows. you come from women who made their pain into art. you come from women who broke open the world so you could step into it. let their holy flow through your eyes. you are the child of wonder.

you will not see the old self in the mirror. you will wake up and look at the girl you’ve always been. the time between starting and seeing will feel infinite. when it happens, everything will be worth it. you will love the life you make. even if no else loves you, even if you walk through hate, even if they use the wrong pronoun at taco bell, you will be ok.

let me repeat this to you because no one else will. you will be ok, baby girl. you are already ok. you will become more ok as time passes. the ignorance never stops hurting but you find new things to be angry about. you can teach them and let them into your heart but sometimes they don’t learn. sometimes they learn from your anger, sometimes from your mercy. be as gentle as you can be but forgive yourself for fucking up. you will fuck your life up so many times that you won’t remember half of them.

let me repeat this to you because no one else will. you are beautiful. you are passable. you are desirable. you are real. you are a miracle and a gift. they will try to take all of this from you every day. don’t let them. meet their shame with brilliance. welcome their dismissal with rage. burn in every moment. be thunderous and fearless and never brave.

welcome to the first day of forever. we have waited for your birth since the prophecy was first given. you are joining a sisterhood which will sometimes hold you up and sometimes pull you down, but will always surprise you with the depth of their power. walk in this power.

it will feel impossible but it isn’t. this is a lie they spread to keep us from the light. ignore them. ignore their lies and their preferred pronouns and their identifies as a woman and their curiosity and their erasure and their silence and their causal violence and just fucking ignore them.

you are a promise written inside a stone. every day, you will wash away layers to reveal the language of your heart. remember your lovers can only embrace you when they learn to embrace themselves. don’t wait for them. love yourself now. this is the only weapon you have.

let me repeat this to you because no one else will. you are love. welcome to the first day of forever. it will be the hardest thing you ever do. it will be best thing you ever do. live between these truths and make a garden.

you will bloom like a wild rose. let me repeat this to you because one else will. you are a woman. you were always a woman. you will become a greater woman.

some day you will believe me. some day you won’t care anymore. some day you will be wild. that day is now. you are already whole. repeat this to yourself if no one else will.

you are the only one who is free. they will fear you for this but let it be your truth. the most beautiful thing about you

is not what you are but how you become.

Transition 21: Emotional Labour (Running up that hill)

If I had a soundtrack for my transition, Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up that Hill” would be the title track. The song is about emotional labour in intimate relationships between men and women. Emotional labour is a way to talk about how female partners carry the burden of emotional processing, investigation, and reflection in relationships. As Kate Bush puts it,

“And if I only could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places
Be running up that road
Be running up that hill
Be running up that building
See if I only could, oh”

The “hill” is a metaphor for the relationship and the “running up” is the emotional labour. For me, the transfemme connection is the line “if I only could/ I’d make a deal with God/And I’d get him to swap our places”. I often wish that I could switch brains with people in my life for a day, so they would see and feel the world I have to navigate as a trans girl. I also wish I could “swap” lives and have access to the social power and freedom that cis people around me possess. Their opportunities, their freedom to exist as human beings.

I am constantly explaining my humanity to the world. At work, I describe surgeries timelines, negotiate the impacts of HRT, schedule meetings around my Dr appointments, laser sessions, and speech therapy appointments. Everything is compromise and rationalization. In my private life, I explain myself to cis friends daily. Why I’m getting surgery, why I feel this way, why I’m wearing this. They ask questions or they listen to me. Often they say “that’s so interesting” or “I was curious about that”. Exhibit, museum installation.

In my romantic life, endless explanation and negotiation. I am always fearful of the silent presence of transphobia or trapped in conversations explaining my body. There are so many questions. How long have you been on hormones? Do you even have breasts? Does your penis still work? Do you sound like a girl? How passable are you? There are very sexually explicit questions I won’t repeat. Even when you get past those questions, there is constant reality of negotiating your partner’s feelings, reactions, and thoughts in intimate settings. When people are the most open to you, they often say the worst things because they aren’t guarding their thoughts. The inner landscape tumbles out. There you are in their words, half a girl, less than, other.

I understand this urge to learn more about trans life. In some ways, education is very valuable in transforming inequality. I think the work of intimate negotiation is valuable and needed. Learning how to communicate and determine shared goals with people in our lives is a critical skill. When you’re a transfemme, this work of education becomes your constant reality. It isn’t just passive education, but often advocacy in crisis. Fighting for my health card, pushing back against expectations at work, arguing for my humanity with men in my life, asking the world over and over again to treat me better.

It’s exhausting. I’m tired of it. I’ve chosen to take on public education throughout my transition and to be very honest about my life. I stand by that decision but I pay a price for it. There are spaces in my life where I do not want to explain or defend myself anymore. In my home, with my friends, in intimate moments, I want to be fully whole. I do not want to carry burden of my transness always. I can’t. If there are no spaces where I am free to exist as myself without negotiation, my humanity will always be erased.

I don’t want to be erased. I don’t want to fight to seen. I want to have the same opportunities as every other girl, regardless of my body or my face or my voice. Before you ask a trans girl a question, consider if you would ask a cis girl the same question. Before you enter a conversation or a intimate situation, make a conscious decision to prioritize her needs before yours. Be careful, be mindful of power, and try to prevent harm. It won’t always be possible, but it’s a requirement for equality.

There have been so many moments in my transition where I have felt trapped by the work of education and advocacy.  Moments where I desperately want to exist and be just like any other girl but am forced to work through my transness with others. It’s violence. It denies my basic right to chase what makes me happy. To have spaces in my life where I can act without needing to translate, to feel the same everyday pleasures of other girls without needing to justify or rationalize my humanity.

I don’t want to do that work with the people I’m closest to because they’re the closest to me. Most people don’t intend to make you do this work. Often it’s accidental harm. I’m so tired of accidental harm. It’s almost worse than intentional harm because often it tells me you don’t see me as a woman or exposes the fundamental differences between me and cis girls. I like Kate’s line about this “You don’t wanna hurt me/ But see how deep the bullet lies”. I read this line as pointing to the difference between intention and power. Most people who I do this work for have good intentions, but the functional power differences make the exchange unbalanced.

The bullet is transphobia and misogyny. It’s in everything. Like racism, it’s can be hard to name and place. It is a constant force in my life in every day. It comes when I’m walking to work through bewildered stares, comments, and sometimes slurs. It comes from stupid questions. It comes through structural barriers I negotiate. It’s everywhere, just under the skin, waiting. Unlike the world of Kate’s song where it’s just “Well tell me, we both matter, don’t we?/It’s you and me”, it’s never just me and the other person. We don’t matter in the same way. I’m not allowed to matter by assumption like a cis girl. My mattering has to be earned through my emotional labour.

My transness sits between me and the world. This is a burden but it can be gift. The one who decides whether my transness is a burden or a gift is always the other person. Don’t ask me to explain my humanity. Run up the hill with me. Let’s make a deal with God. I want to be free of this negotiation. I can’t explain how and why I am a girl. You have to see and believe that independent of any narrative. Sometimes that means making a decision to treat me as such regardless of presentation. Sometimes that means remembering how new I am in my body and self. Sometimes it means doing the work so I don’t have to.

This is the other part of my struggle with the burden of explaining. I don’t know the answers. Often I’m being asked to answer for myself while I’m discovering what I feel as it happens. Learning my body in moments, learning what kind of girl I am as it happens. Being caught between being a teenager and an adult, having all of my firsts again. I make mistakes. I mess up. I do the wrong thing. I am learning myself as you learn me. Again this is a burden or a gift.

Let me a gift, a whole gift, not half a girl fighting for the right to be whole. Don’t make me earn my pronouns by my labour. If I only could make a deal with God, I’d be myself. Full stop. No adjectives. No disclaimer. Just a girl in the spaces she wants, inside the love she needs, in a body which is always her own.

 

 

Transition 20: Desirablity

I ended up in a protracted fight online about trans desirablity, so I thought a longer conversation was useful. I think trans desirablity is one of the most complex parts of my transition and often the most painful. Negotiating your desirablity as a trans woman is directly linked to negotiating your overall femininity and feminine expression. It’s a multifaceted dimension of your identity, an interplay between your body, your race, your gender, your expression, and the object of your desire.

I got into the fight because a cis hetrosexual guy posted in one of the trans girl online forums asking if it was inherently transphobic to not date a trans girl because of her genitals (assuming she is pre operation and has male identified genitals). Many of my fellow trans sisters said it wasn’t inherently trans phobic because sexual desire is personal preference. Sexual desire is a form of personal expression but I disagree that it is merely a personal preference. Nothing about our preferences is value neutral in life, because everything is shaped by our social interactions.

Biology is one part of sexual identity. Having been on male and female hormones, I’m fairly confident that there is an underlying chemical relationship with our sexual desires and identity. My desire changed dramatically throughout HRT. I am still primarily male identified attracted, but what I find attractive in male partners is different. Physical traits which I didn’t notice before became more pronounced. My own sexual identity shifted as well and the ways in which I express my sexuality has fundamentally changed. So yes, I’m not disputing biological  factors in sexual desire and attraction.

Biology doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The neural networks which create associations in our brains respond to the social experiences we have. What we see and what we do influence our desire in ways we are not always consciously aware of. Pornography shapes sexual desire and interest, often creating niche expressions of sexuality because of the prominence of various sexual acts in genres of pornography. The bodies featured, the races represented, and the structures around sexual expression in media and image inform what we see as desirable. This one layer of how sexual desire is informed.

The people in our lives are also important. The men and women we grow up with and experience our sexuality with have a profound influence on our overall sexual desire and expression. We absorb the norms of gender through our families, our friends, and the wider community we encounter. Desire ranges greatly across cultures and countries, partly because of the socialization we experience. If you have sexual experience with a trans person, you are more likely to be open to it later on. Same with same sex relations as well as varied body types and racial partners. Experience drives development. This is another layer of our sexual desire.

A more complex and important influence on sexual desire is social power. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other forms of systematic oppression construct our desires. We may not always be aware of these forces, but the effect is cumulative throughout our life time. I encounter people who say they are not attracted to members of entire races. This clearly racism, drawn from the way certain races have historically been presented. Asian women vs asian men is an example of pervasive racism shaping one as desirable while negating the other as sexually worthy. How many times I have seen ‘no asians’ in dating profiles? Social power is at play here, not biological desire, because there is no  meaningful difference between the bodies involved.

When we present our desire as a personal taste, we’re disconnecting it from the wider social history of our world. Our world and western culture specifically have very clear notions of desirability. It’s important to notice that the original question wasn’t about sex per say, but romantic engagement. How many representations of trans women in romantic relationships have you seen in your life? I’m guessing you can name them fairly quickly and the number is low. How many representations of cis women in romantic relationships have you seen?  I’m guessing you can’t name this number because it’s a constant image motif in our society.

What does that mean for trans women? We do not have access to myths and romantic ideals in the same way as cis women. Our partners are not socialized to see us as worthy sexual partners. In fact, they are often socialized via porn and transphobic media to see us as sexual objects or with repulsion. This is a powerful force which informs our desirability. Desirability is not just sex. It’s imaging ourselves with the potential partner, envisioning the various social and economic capital which comes with their affection. This is a problem from trans women, because there is no model for our social worth or value.

Because we live in a transphobic society, desire (particularly masculine desire) is almost always going to be transphobic towards our bodies. We can overcome this in various ways, education, base attractiveness, personal attributes, but we will always have to overcome it in some fashion. I’m not saying every guy should desire every transwoman but questioning the idea of his desire as a natural state. It can’t be pure biology and that’s the area where we need critical thinking and engagement.

I know of cis hetrosexual men who have romantic and sexual relationships with trans women who are pre operation. These men identify as ‘straight’ and have a focused desire on vaginas. For many of them, they worked through their desires with their trans partners, finding ways to connect across bodies and around their partner’s genitals. Some of them were aligned with their trans partners, as many trans girls do not want their genitals involved in sexual expression. So they don’t engage that area of their partner’s body. Some of them do end up engaging their partner’s genitals, simply because they find it problematic to never pleasure their partner in this way and because they connect with the person. They work through it in other words, through partnership and communication. They adapt their desire.

This is my final point. Sexual desire is adaptive. It responds to the circumstances and emotional needs of us as individuals. Our desire changes over time through experience and shifts in our needs. All of us, regardless of gender or preferences, are able to be sexually responsive in a wide range of situations. How many gay men do I know who had female partners before coming out? How many straight men do I know who have had same sex experiences? How many women have had varied sexual partners of both genders? My point is simply that framing our desire as a constant force which excludes individuals on the basis of their bodies or their race is demonstrably false.

Is it transphobic to not want to date or sleep with a trans girl because of her genitals? I think it is, because we live in a transphobic society. It’s difficult to imagine a version of male desire which hasn’t been shaped by shame and guilt. It is not transphobic to not want to date or sleep with a specific trans girl, unless the reasons are related to her gender expression or her body, but it is to declare a blanket rule around trans bodies. While it was politically helpful to assert that sexual desire in biologically based in order to win protection for Gay and Lesbian communities, it isn’t helpful to pretend that our social enviroment doesn’t shape our desire as well.

The other reality is that it will often feel wrong to be sexually intimate with trans people for many cis people, especially for the first time. Why? Because there is no social representation or model for our desirability.  When a cis person is sexual with another cis person, there is a social context. Whether it’s same sex or heterosexual, images and ideas exist around those bodies. It’s normalized, in other words. This wasn’t always the case for same sex relations and some stigma still exists, but not like it does for trans bodies. We have no social context. There is no voice in anyone’s head saying “yes it is valid to desire this body”. There is no image of our pleasure aside from exploitative and misleading porn. 

As trans bodies, we lack the social capital to produce an immediate “this feel right” sensation in partners. Often fear or uncertainty surround us.  Why? Because there is no socialization of cis people experience growing up in the world which tells them we are viable. There is no social reward circuit which gets lit up when connecting with our bodies. It is always a negotiation. If we change society,  that may change. If a cis person has previous trans partners, they may those postive connections already but otherwise, we (trans and cis) have to form them together because society does not program us with a “script” that says trans love or sex is real or good.

All of the cis and trans relationships I know of in my social circles or read about online begin in compromise. Usually, the narrative is one of disclosure, learning about what it is to be trans, and actively breaking down transphobia to connect. It’s not different than the work which occurs in mixed race relationships, although there is more models for this. The one defining trait of cis people who have intimate bonds with trans people is that they a) do some work to overcome prejudice and b) value and see us as people first. They also usually have to be willing to face social stigma and prejudice.  

What I’m saying simply is that trans desirability does not exist in society. Unlike cis desirablity, trans bodies are not normalized or even understood.  We are not shown as a possible option for a fulfilling and healthy sexual or romantic relationship. Trans fetishization exists, but not desirablity. At the heart of this is the question: why would a cis person desire or not desire a trans person if not because of our gentials? 

Because we are human. Because we are worthy of desire and love. We are worthy of pleasure and like other human beings, we give and share ourselves. We can be talented and smart like cis people. We can be funny. We are many things but often erased by one thing. That is violence. 

So when someone says they don’t desire a trans because (insert any reason here), I have to ask “why not?”. If you connect with us on all other levels but sexual, why not? Similar to people who say they arent atttacted to other races, a blanket “I just don’t” is a warning of prejuice. This especially true if the cis person in question doesn’t have a trans fetishization. Lacking that explicit desire, how do you evaluate our desirablity apart from the transphobic violence we live in? Im not sure you can.

What’s my horse in this race? Obviously I have to negotiate trans desirability in my sexual and romantic partnerships. It’s been the subject of many conversations with many guys over the course of my life time.  I probably have a PHD in male sexual desire at this point, the result of so many bisexual male partners with questions around their sexual expression. It’s never about making them feel shame for their sexuality or desires. Most of the guys I’ve talked with have enough of that already but I think it is important to actively question our desire. 

Those conversations have been useful for me as well in understanding my desire. They’ve challenged me and continue to question how I frame masculinity. I do problematic things with my desire as well and they’ve called me on it. It’s an important  dialogue. It’s the kind of dialogue across sexual desire and bodies we should look for in our lives. It’s enriching and fundementally important to explore difference. Queerness used to do this but more and more, it’s been turned into a celebration of sameness. 

My point with all of this is two fold. Desire is not innate. It is learned like everything else in our life. It is not fixed as well. It adapts. Framing your desire in absolutes is not helpful to your development as a human being. More importantly, it leaves you vulnerable to replicating norms of social oppression. 

The second point is specific to trans women and broadly to all trans bodies. We are the most sexually ostracized and vulnerable membets of society.  I’m confident in that statement from my experiences and the real statstics I see. There is so much misinformation around our bodies. 

For example, the cis guy assumes the potential trans woman has a penis. Hormones change your genitals. They shrink generally, they behave very differently, they often don’t get erect or ejaculate as a man does, they’re a different colour, etc. What is between my legs is not what is between my male partner’s legs. 

We all start as female in the womb. A penis and a clitoris are the same tissue. This is why trans bottom surgery works the way it does and is successful, because we have relatively similar materials as neo natal women. The fact that many people likely dont know any of that and likely assume I have a “penis” is a reflection of transphobia.

You can’take have a meaningful discussion sexuality or desirablity around trans women unless you have experience sleeping with or dating us. There is so much education which needs to happen that most of it has to be 1 to 1. You also can’t talk about us as a single group. It’s specific to the individual in question. I look very different naked than my other trans girl friends, because we are unique expressions of trans womanhood. Finally, you can’t disconnect your desire for or not for us from the violence we face.

Is it transphobic to not see us as viable sexual or romantic partners? Yes. Is it transphobic to be uncomfortable with our bodies? Depends on how you respond to that discomfort. Is it transphobic to not date a specific trans woman? Only you can really answer that but if the question is rooted in discomfort, the answer is likely yes. 

The only test is to evaluate us as human. Not apart from our transness because it is part of our humanity, but through our human attributes in relationship to yours. How do we connect? Is the bond strong? Do we have characteristics of people you do desire? Are those people cis? What is the difference then? The only way to assess our desirablity is in relationship with us and our bodies. It may require trying things where you feel discomfort. That discomfort may pass or stay. It may not work.  

But to be denied the chance to give and receive love simply because we are trans is inherently violent. To not even be worthy of trying is inherently transphobic. How do you know if your desire is transphobic? You can’t know but you can choose to act as if it isn’t. Build intimacy with trans people in yor life. Touch us, know us, and if the moment comes, be open to trying to love and fuck us. Don’t say no because it’s uncomfortable, recognizing the history and weight of being trans in the world. Be an agent of our humanity.

It may not work out, it may require some difficult talks, but it’s our right to have a chance for pleasure within our bodies. Wholeness is built between bodies across difference through vulnerability and openness. Not having access to the same possiblities as cis bodies is one of the ways which transphobia denies us of our agency. In a world which values sameness and normalcy, we need rebels and outlaws. We need people willing to break rules and defy convention. Sex is one of the last spaces left where we can be truly liberated. Choose to be a revolution, not a tyrant. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transition 18: Surrender

I’ve reached a strange point in my transition. For the last 3 days, I’ve started to be consistently read as female in public. It just happened on Tuesday when I got into a taxi in Ottawa and then kept happening. Cashiers, security guards, panhandlers, restaurants, movie theaters, and strangers on the street who bumped into me. There is a surreal quality to how it feels to be gendered correctly. After so long of not being gendered properly, it’s confusing to be read as the gender I am. I’m not sure what exactly has changed recently, although I suspect it is related to my hair length and my progress with laser hair removal on my face.

How does it feel? Positive, but terrifying and confusing. It happens with people I’m talking to, so my voice doesn’t seem to be gendering me incorrectly. It also happens with people who I don’t think are reading me as transgender as well, people who I don’t think have much awareness of what a trans woman is. It feels like a gift, one I never thought I would see. On the other hand, it terrifies me because I’m scared of it stopping or of doing the wrong thing and losing it. Without knowing why, it’s hard to keep doing whatever it is which is causing me to be gendered correctly.

It also reveals the limitations of my transition. I’m 3 months into Estrogen, about 4 1/2 months on T-blockers. Based on what I see from other trans woman, the changes in our faces seem to intensify at 6 months to 1 year. Everyone responds differently and it’s clear from my progress in development that I’m a rare high responder to estrogen. My breast development and facial changes have occurred at a very rapid rate. I realized this week that I completely fill a bra I bought 2 months ago. When I bought it, it was loose but now it’s not. When I see my body in the mirror, it is unmistakably female. My face may still be caught between genders, but my body is rapidly tilting to one side.

I realized that people in my life who know me don’t see my changes like strangers do. I think I’m coded as male in their brains and even through most of them have migrated to the right pronouns and name, my gender is erased by past associations. Other trans women have warned me about this, but I didn’t quite appreciate it until now. What does it mean when strangers gender me correctly but my friends and coworkers still get it wrong? I underestimated the power of first impressions, how the references we build around people in our lives sustain themselves despite any changes.

This is a profound part of my transition which I did not appreciate when I began. I often overestimate my capacity to overcome obstacles. I jump into things without considering the consequences or the odds of success. I have an inherent faith in my ability to survive and achieve my goals. It is the abuse survivor in me, a stubborn refusal to accept my limitations and a passionate hope in the velocity of my heart. It has kept me alive throughout my life, but it also hurts me. This transition has been a very hard lesson in recognizing when I’m in a fight I can’t win.

I used to believe that I could become a girl despite my past life. I thought I could keep the threads of my old life connected to the new life I’ve built, but my perspective is changing. Very few people have the capacity to have known me as I was and still see who I am now. I thought I could convince them that the current version of me is the version of me which has always been present. I’m not sure it works like that. Partly because I’m not the same person I always was and I can’t pretend that the old version of me is the same as the current. Much of the change is hormonal, a shift in my preferences and personality as I feel more free to express myself as I want. It’s also the weight of  this transition, the hard lessons I’ve learned and the pain of it pushing me in new directions.

As a feminist, I always accepted the idea that gender was a social construction which could be reconstructed and broken due through critical thought. I believed that there was fluidity in how we could express gender and that other people could and do see through our gender presentation to who we are inside. I don’t feel that’s true anymore, a radical breakdown in how I view the world. I think we got it wrong. Gender is certainly socially constructed but my experience is that gender is also chemically and biologically constructed. Having been both genders chemically, I can say there is a marked difference between testosterone and estrogen.

I don’t believe that hormones are destiny or that differences in biological gender determine our capacity as individuals. I think there is a wide overlap and grey area in male and female bodies as well as biology. Most individuals have a blend of estrogen and testosterone, making it not a pure gender distinction. But yes, I think there is a biological different between us based on my transition. I also think gender is much more powerful concept than people admit. Perhaps there is theoretical room of variance in gender and for deconstructing gender, but in real life, gender is an absolute ruler.

We talk about there not being two binary positions of gender, male and female. In Indigenous cultures, we’ve always had 3 or more genders. I agree in principle, but in everyday life, there is absolutely only two options for a majority of the world. Falling between those two binaries is not a pleasant place to be. I used to think people in my life would see me as female because that who I am, regardless of my body. I believe because a majority of people in my life came from a similar background in feminism and gender theory that they could get it.

Maybe they do on an intellectual level. In terms of how they treat and see me, a vast majority of them still treat me as boy. Even if they use the right pronouns, they often say things which tell me how they really see me. I’m not a girl to them in how they respond or treat me, regardless of what they say. This is the hard wall of gender I can’t break down. I used to think that my intelligence and capacity for artistic achievement would let me scale it, but no, I was wrong. The most important part of gender is looking like the gender you are. You will be treated as the gender you most closely resemble, no matter what your politics say.

I also understand why many trans woman don’t tell anyone they’re trans. Or start entirely new lives in different cities. Because your past prevents your present. People don’t update their view of you. They will see the boy they first met, instead of the girl who is in front of them now. The deadname follows me. The old face stalks me. I can’t escape it unless the person has only known me as I am now. I’ll never be a girl to most of the people I know. What does that mean for me?

Surrender. I fought my way through this transition. I thought if I documented and explained and argued, I could bring people in my life along with me. I thought I could be different from the stories of other trans women who told me about losing everyone and rebuilding. I took selfies, showed my body as it changed, thinking people would see the change in me and recognize me for what I am becoming. I took this transition like I’ve taken every difficult thing in my life, as a storm of light and sound. And I was wrong.

I can’t win against gender. It is greater than me and more powerful than anyone cares to admit. As a woman, my face and body define my entire life in way they never did as a man. My goals now are to confirm as much as I can, to try to erase as much of my masculine traits as I can. To blend in, to fit the box. Because as much as people claim to celebrate gender non conformance and being an individual, it’s a distant appreciation. It doesn’t translate into meaningful engagement with you as a person and it doesn’t cause them to see you for who you are.

I’ve had so many conversations with people in my life about this transition. I assume they get it, because they know me and seemingly care about me. Then they say something which tells me in explicit terms that they still see me as a man. A friend recently was  taking to me about dating, someone I thought appreciated who I was fully, and said to me, ‘you’re looking to date a gay man, right?’. The implication is a) I’m still a man despite my gender b) a complete erasure of my body, the fact that I have breasts and am feminine in presentation and appearance and c) the idea that my genitals rule my partners. I didn’t know what to say. I was shocked.

I was shocked because while I recognize that my face is still between male and female, my body certainly isn’t. I stammered back ‘well no, I’m a girl and I have breasts?’. I gestured to my chest, as I often do in conversations with people who misgender me.  Like hello, they’re small but not that small. I have full on cleavage now. And my friend looked at me and scrunched up their face before saying, ‘well like who then? straight guys?’ as if it was impossible and the worst idea. Another message telling me I’m too masculine to matter. Another way of telling my body is wrong. Another  message from someone who knows me and should understand that I’m not a real girl. Not real enough to matter.

They went on to recommend I try to date other trans women. Which makes no sense, because I’m not a lesbian. Like I’ve tried that and no thanks, not right for me. The idea I guess is that other trans women are also not real women and therefore, we’d both still be guys and that would work out. Stupid and frustrating conversation but also honest. This is a smart educated person who is well versed in feminism. I think it reflects how most people see me and other trans women. What we look like, what’s between our legs, determines our humanity.

I don’t think we can change that. I don’t think I can change it. So if you can’t change the world, you change yourself. The lesson for me is that I need to work harder at passing if I ever want to seen as real. I think I will get bottom surgery when I’m eligible, even though it terrifies me and is painful and the outcomes are unclear. I don’t want to be erased forever by my genitals. I also think I will try to get face surgery. I resisted this for so long, thinking it was conforming to gender norms. If the only way I can ever be seen as real is how close my face is to gender norms, then I need to do it. I don’t want to fight against expectations anymore.

Time to surrender, wait for hormones to change me. Plan for surgeries. Delete the old photos of me as a boy. Erase him as much as possible. And when I’m closer to female norms, build new connections. Shape a new life when I can. I don’t think I will blog about this transition anymore. Or take more selfies. I thought it was documenting my change, but I think it just made it easier for people to keep me linked to my past. Making myself visible has only made me more invisible.

So often, theory fails to match life. I still believe in breaking the gender binary, but I don’t want to be a sacrifice on that particular altar. If I want to be happy as I am, the only way to is stop fighting and confirm. I can’t change the world. I can change myself to meet it’s expectations. And that’s what this transition has taught me. The nice positive affirmations about being yourself are things people share on social media, but in real life, in human dynamics, we really expect and want people to line up with our expectations. Maybe we shouldn’t, but we do.

I think a transition gives you a very unique perspective on gender. I think it’s the most powerful force in our world, beyond racism and sexuality and prejudice. Gender is a universal language which controls your destiny. This is why trans people experience such dramatic oppression. So many nice liberal friends in my life have stepped away from me for being trans, because fundamentally, they believe  gender is your genitals. Gay friends, friends who are bisexual, friends who are racialized, friends who vote NDP, friends who identify as feminists, friends who say they’re against gender constructions-they’ve all denied me as a woman. Because no matter our theory or backgrounds, there is a very powerful narrative in our lives about gender and it is constantly reinforced.

That realization depresses me to no end, but it’s helpful to recognize the limitations of change. A friend asked me during the summer if I really wanted to be a woman. The answer is yes. I will do what I have to be seen for who I am. Even if it means surgery. Even if it means erasing my past. Why? Because it’s who I am. And conforming is the only way to be seen for who I am. It’s not the answer I want, but it’s reality. I’ve spent much of my life fighting against that reality but now, I think it’s time to surrender.

 

Transition 17: The Relationship between Abuse and Being Trans

*trigger warning for abuse, suicide*

It’s weird I’m still writing in this blog. I feel a shift in my life energy away from social media, but I think I still value the process of writing and reflecting on my transition. Apart of whatever social value there is in documenting change, I like that a record of my process exists, if even for myself. Or if something happens to me, there’s a roadmap of my life in my voice which extends beyond me. It’s one of the comforts I take from my writing. My books will survive me to whatever degree they continue to be relevant.

I think about death often. Likely because it’s one of the major artistic themes of my work, but also because I feel a special affinity for the dead. I always have, since I was a kid. I like what is unseen and lingers, the underside of our lives. History, the past, and every small dream which no longer sings. It’s morbid, but it’s also fascinating. I remember one of my lines, ‘the promise is double in us, we are the heirs of death and the chosen ones who will die’. There is also grief, an emotional state which has defined me.

I live with grief. It’s part of my inheritance. I come from a family where abuse defined family bonds for generations. I grew up in a house filled with violence, fear, and control. My parents were abusive, mostly because they were abused and it was how they understood love. My father was physically violent, as well as emotionally abusive. He focused much of his anger on me because I was feminine. He used to try to ‘man’ me up through physical punishments, shame, and forcing me to stereotypical male things. It didn’t work, but it did teach me to hate myself.

Apart from the constant physical violence, he created a family dynamic where we (my sisters and mother) competed for his approval. We were enemies with each other, focusing the attention of the family around him and his anger. It’s a common tactic of abusive men, disrupting the family environment and creating an atmosphere of fear. He would punish us in front of each other, shame one member of the family while the rest of us watched, and would suddenly fly into anger without explanation. There was no way to predict his violence. He would wake up me at night sometimes to beat me.

My sisters and mother supported him in varying degrees in his violence. They never interfered with his attacks on me, likely because they lacked the capacity to and often because they wanted his approval more. It fragmented any bond I could feel between myself and them. All of us, broken apart from birth. His father, judging by the stories, was much worse. My grandfather beat my grandmother in front of his children, which I don’t think my father ever did in private or public. So in some sense, he improved over his father.

I don’t understand what happened to me as a child. I never have and I don’t think I ever will. Some of the violence happened in front of other people. I don’t know why they didn’t interfere. If I ever saw a man slap his 8 year old child in the face, I would respond. I can’t imagine walking away from that, but then, I’m not my father. I have no contact with my family as an adult, a decision which took years but every social worker/therapist I ever saw recommended to me. Part of my decision was that I was with my ex partner. I felt like I had finally escaped my childhood.

My parents abandoned me several times in my life, but most significantly when I has just started high school. I experienced a tremendous amount of violence in high school due to bullying. I was constantly hunted through the halls of my school by packs of boys because of my femininity. I remember counting how many times I was called a ‘faggot’ one day at school. I reached 56 and stopped counting. They would chase me home after school. I would hide until 30 minutes had passed after last bell so I could try to get home safely or I would run all the way home after last class. It was a difficult adolescence.

I felt caught between two terrible forces, my family and the bullies at school. I had to hide the bullying from my family because they hated my femininity and homosexuality as much as the boys at school did. At home, I was constantly under attack and interrogated by my parents. At school, I was hated and spit on every day. It was relentless. It was the time in my life when I developed my first eating disorder, a pattern which was the only thing which brought me comfort then. It was also when I had my first suicide attempt. And my second. And then my third. Eventually, the pressure became too great and the administrators at my school realized I was trying to die.

I don’t think I ever wanted to die truly. I just think I couldn’t imagine living like that anymore and wanted the pain to stop. I think that’s how suicide functions for some individuals, a way to return control to a life destroyed by other people. A way to save yourself, I guess, if it seems extreme and permanent. While I recognize the impact of suicide, I don’t judge people who attempt or successfully commit it. I understand the feeling. When you have very limited options and no escape from violence, it becomes a more compelling option than most people realize. So much of your being becomes about escaping the pain, it gets written into you as a central mission.

I was hospitalized in a children’s psych ward for about 2 weeks. It was the first time I was ever away from my parent’s abuse. They visited, but after observing my mental state after they visited, the staff reduced their access to me and tranquilized me. I don’t think I’ve ever written about that before. It was a scary and lonely moment in my life. You become labeled as ‘crazy’ in an institution and treated like invalid, but the circumstances of my life were not my fault. I’m not sure how I could have managed it better. An adult would have struggled, much less a child.

It was also the only time I was ever safe from my family until I left home to attend university. I could have went into a group home under the care of the state, but I figured my chances of a better life were higher if I stayed within the family house. We moved cities, I went to a new high school which was much better, and I got really good grades and scholarships so I could attend university. I survived by avoiding contact with my family as much as possible, sleeping when I came home from school and only being active when they were asleep. I walled off myself from them in my basement room. I got my dog, Mr Snuggles, which was the first time I ever experienced complete love.

And I went to university and left them forever. But you don’t escape abuse. It lives in your cells. It replicates in your mind. The message of your worthlessness continues, even after the abuse stops. I grow up in an unstable environment without love. It made me vulnerable to many other evils, including other abusive people and bad coping skills. The statistics around children who were abused are terrifying. We have shorter life expectancy, reduced success in relationships and careers, much higher rates of illness, and an overall diminished capacity for life. I feel that and see the reflections in my life as well.

The core pain of my experience of abuse was abandonment and grief. Being left or failed by those who were supposed to love/protect me and the grief of not having what others had. I watched other kids grow up loved and I wondered what it would be like. I used to imagine being rescued from my family growing up but I never was. Later on, I imagined being loved in a way which let me feel safe which hasn’t happened either. I think it’s why I became a writer and a poet, as a way to escape them and a way to win the approval of the outside world. My way of showing I have worth, even though I come from nothing. Well, worse than nothing.

As I go through my transition, I’m starting to realize how deeply triggering it is for me. It’s another replication of my childhood. Friends abandoning me because I’m trans, lovers shaming me because I’m trans, and strangers shouting ‘faggot’ at me. In some sense, my childhood of abuse prepared me for this transition. I’m better equipped to handle the violence, because at my heart, I’m a survivor. But it also triggers old ways of coping, suicidal thoughts and a persistent loneliness. I feel trapped again, caught between forces which are trying to kill me.

Suicide is a part of the trans community as it is a common way we die. I know of 3 trans women who have killed themselves since I started my transition. I know cis people think this is because we’re crazy and messed up inside, but I fundamentally think it is because of oppression. The way society treats you is profoundly painful, especially if there is family rejection as well. In some way or another, almost all of the trans women I know work through suicidal thoughts. I know I do. Often when I’m at the worst point in my estrogen cycle, when my moods are most affected by the hormones, I will be suicidal for hours.

I’m pretty comfortable with it to be honest. I’m used to feeling that way, since I was a kid. I know how to manage it. Distract myself, break my mental cycle, practice self care, reach out to social networks, and comfort myself. I remind myself it’s a feeling, a temporary state of pain and I reach around the pain. I accept the pain, I embrace loss, and I wait for it to pass. And it does. It comes back again and again as I transition, but I work through it. I’ve always assumed at some point in my life, I’ll lose that struggle, but so far, I stay alive.

I suppose the insight for this entry is the relationship between our past and our transitions. If your fundamental experience of being human is one of loss and pain, it is going to be a challenging transition. I find it interesting how this transition mirrors my childhood. I seem to be the kind of girl who does hard shit. I don’t want to be, but we don’t choose our paths. Not really. I didn’t ask to be born into an abusive house. I didn’t ask to be trans. I think both are genetic.

But I go on, I work through, I rely on my intelligence and capacity to endure as I always have. A survivor survives. There is regret in that statement, but also a recognition of capacity. Many of my peers didn’t make it from the hospital. I did. I don’t think that because I was better, but lucky. I hope my luck keeps turning over, but I don’t know. So much of me is already consumed by this transition. What’s left is a small love, a soft hope, and a prayer for transformation. The rest is often pain.

May we stay alive. May I stay alive. May we go on. May it be a different future than the past.