Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Week as a Woman

Over the past year of coming out as having an androgynous gender identity, I've gone through many incarnations. The first several months, I went through a period completely torn between whether I truly identified as both genders, or if I was actually a woman and the masculine part of my identity was merely the result of habit and conditioning that would go away after presenting as a women for a sufficiently long period.

I decided to test this by presenting as female for several days out of a single week late last winter. It was indeed an exhilirating experience. With female friends more on the periphery of my circle of friends, I encountered a level of emotional intimacy  I had never experienced with them before. In general, growing up and into adulthood, I have always related to and been closer to  women rather than men. However, as an adult, it has grown much harder to gain female friends' trust in the beginning of knowing them. It seems that unless I take a gay-best-friend dynamic with them (which describes my personality in part but certainly not in whole) I can never have as close a friendship with them in the beginning as they do with other women. When they find out I'm not only bisexual, but prefer women romantically, there's almost always a period when I must "prove" my intentions are not romantic or sexual. I certainly don't blame any of my female friends for this, as I myself learned I have to take a similar stance due to my experiences being romantically involved with men. However, it's always  a roadblock that needs to be overcome, and has been with each of my close female friends.

The experience of presenting fem around female aquaintances was similar to my experiences being in a foreign land and finding a local synagogue. Peope would look askance at first, but the minute they know I'm a Jew, their expressions lift, their stance opens, and suddenly it's like I'm at home. Going out with female friends, it was the same phenomena. They opened up in a way I had not anticipated, and suddenly I realized that before there was always a slight, but definite, note of caution that was no longer there because they saw me as "one of the girls".

Yet along with this came definite downsides. Priviledge theory is a very handy explanatory tool for showing the essential blindness men can have to how their actions affect women. Though I have always had an "effeminate" personality and related more to women than men, during this week I began to see just how blind I had been. Suddenly male friends (though I know for a fact they were perfectly OK with my being transgender) were not so interested in hearing my opinions. "Silencing behaviors" that I had previously only known on an intellectual level I suddenly had first hand experience as  the one being silenced. A male classmate who (genuinely) commented on how great I looked before a few minutes before class rudely and completely shut me down when I began a back and forth with the professor, saying that I was "boring the class" (something every other classmate vehemently denied when I discussed it with them at later dates). This is something he would likely have never even thought of doing in so crude a manner were I not classified as a woman in his mind.

Despite the downsides and upsides, I never thought of discovering my gender as a cost-benefit analysis. I think this is a common mistake people make when they tell their transgender daughter/son/best friend that this is their "choice". Gender is not something you "choose" my tallying what roles fit you and which don't or what benefits there are to one or the other. The fact is "choice" does not factor into it at all. It is an indelible impression you have of yourself. It's how you think of yourself at the most basic level, the very person you think of when you say "I". The only "choice" you make is how you communicate your gender identity to the world through your expression, and even then for most transexual persons and many androgynous persons being able to express yourself physically is absolutely necessary to mental health (and is where the problem of dysphoria finds its solution).

For me, however, just as I have visions of myself as a woman when I think of "I", so too do I think I see myself as a man, or very often as neither. I could tell I was indeed not a woman because I still had the desire to look and identify in a masculine manner,  just as the inverse was true in my desire to look and identify in a feminine manner when I was solely presenting as a man. Finally I had the experience I needed to know who I am on the level of gender. I realized I am neither authentically simply a man nor authentically simply a woman; I for the first time knew with certainty that who I am lies somewhere in the middle. I knew this not because of vague suppositions, not because of some cold cost-benefit analysis, but instinctively the way I know that these are my hands I type with, or the faint vibrations in my chest are my own heart beating. No longer did I have to think "Who am I?" Yet as Tolstoy put it "This new feeling hasn't changed me, hasn't made me happy or suddenly enlightened, as I dreamed...Nor was there any surprise. And faith or not faith -I don't know what it is - but this feeling has entered into me just as imperceptibly through suffering and has firmly lodged itself in my soul."    

Monday, May 14, 2012

My Story: Part 1

"If you should stand, then who's to guide you? If I knew the way, I would take you home"- Grateful Dead "Ripple"

There are many places I could start my story. I could start in the first grade, when on the first day of school I was told by one of the boys that "Only girls pee sitting down" while I was using the restroom stall and having very little idea of what he was talking about. I could start in general with my upbringing, which from my earliest memories had almost no explicit gendering from my parents.

Yet nothing so comprehensively describes my early and very confused notion of "boy" and "girl" as my fourth grade year. I am nine. The playground at my school is bordered with a wooden frame, which I am sitting on. It's a grey and chilly mid-fall day, school just started up about a month before. I am reading an "Animorphs" book, my favorite series at the time.    

Two of the more popular boys come up to me.

"Why are you sitting like that?"

"Like what?"

"With your legs together like that."

"What's wrong with it?"

"That's the way girls sit. Are you a girl?"

"I don't know. How should I sit?"

"With your legs apart." 

Seeing the only way to get them to leave me alone was by obliging, I spread my legs as far as they would go. The boys started to laugh and walked away. I just sat there completely bewildered, having no idea what just happened.

Fourth grade was the year I learned to be ashamed of myself. Shame isn't something you're born with, it's something you're conditioned into. It's day in and day out being slammed with dirty looks, snickering, and out-and-out insults. Thank G-d, my parents never made me feel ashamed of who I was. But they were the only presence in my life that did not.

My teacher provided no aid, and in fact contributed to me being "othered". Mr. Sailor was a sad, pathetic man. He frequently told us kids that we were the reason he weighed 300 pounds. The stress he experienced "forced" him to go to McDonalds every night. He would often speak of how our parents were coddling us by not exposing us to the same punishments that adults face. If a nine year old were to steal a candy bar, Mr. Sailor said that he should have to serve prison time. He would often brag about how many times he had been taken to court by parents for mistreating students, and the fact that according to him the court always ruled in his favor. He spoke of sucker punching a young male teenage relative of his who was being difficult, claiming doing so had taught the kid respect.

This is the kind of teacher our public schools are exposing our children to.

As one might expect, I was a constant target of his mockery. I often answered questions in class correctly, to which he said in a mocking voice "You go girl". After that I tended to keep quiet in class. He would cite me for having "illegible handwriting" something that, though bad, was certainly readable to every teacher I'd had before and after. I thankfully never went to him seeking a defense from the other boys, who generally got the names they called me directly from him.

This experience taught me gender for the first time, though not in the way one might expect one learns this concept. I categorized behaviors according to "what boys do" and "what girls do". The only meaning either of these terms had, however, was "what to do to be left alone" and "if I do this, I will get teased and harrased."      

I quickly learned that in general I could not expect warmth or friendship from other people. Friends I had had since first grade began distancing themselves from me. The only friends that remained were my friends from my school district's after-school program that were a year younger than me.

And yet, even this year was better than middle school. I will cover this time with my next entry. Thank you to all who have read and recommended others read my blog! Big thanks especially to Michele, Kelsey, and Devaun. Also big thanks to Lyn who inspired me to create it!

Please feel free to ask questions. I created this blog primarily to educate in addition to being an emotional release. I know with asking questions of someone who identifies as androgyne, which is not an identity most people are familiar with, there's a fear I may take offense to what you ask. However, I anticipate all those who come to this page and have questions to do so from a position of good faith, so please ask me anything that may be on your mind! 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

What is in a name?

"More exists among human beings than can be answered by the simplistic question I'm hit with every day of my life: Are you a man or a woman?" -Les Feinberg

It is the habit of all human beings to want a neatly ordered universe. In fact, the entirety of human history as it relates to the study of our world, ourselves, and the cosmos has at its base categorization and definition. So we created language, we create words by which our most precious and unique personal perspective can be communicated to others. As Aldous Huxley wrote, we attempt to bridge the hopeless gulf between ourselves and others by, among other methods such as sex, music, and the visual arts, these words and labels. But what happens when we fool ourselves into thinking that the labels we and others use to describe ourselves embody entirely who we are? What happens when we try to make ourselves, as Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, objects in the sense that this chair I sit in is an object? It is then that these labels become our very coffins, and we cease to be human beings.

Such is the way I've always viewed when people, in good faith no doubt, have asked me "Are you a man or a woman?" Certainly these two categories exist, and many people feel that these words accurately define who they are, and this fact I have no problem accepting. However, for me it has never been the case. For me personally, the words "man" and "woman", "boy" and "girl" fail to have any real meaning. When people ask me this question, the only true answer I can give them is "I am human".

Yet when I say this, and the person asking fully comprehends my ambiguity, they become noticably uncomfortable. "How can that be?" they think. They have been raised and lived their entire lives with the notion expressed in the recent movie 500 Days of Summer : "There are two kinds of people in this world. There are men and there are women."

Yet research done in the latter half of the last century shows that existance as a human being is not so clear cut. Physically speaking, and contrary to popular belief, there are indeed "true hermaphrodites" who possess both working male and female sexual organs. In my case, there are people who despite having an XY or an XX karyotype, find that the traditional terms man and woman have no meaning.

We are people, who despite our differences are very much like you. We have jobs, we pay taxes, we go to school. We are parents, we are co-workers, we are friends. Yet we are also the people you look askance at, thinking of us as "pansies" or "bull-dykes" depending on our presentation. We are lambasted in popular media such as the 90's SNL character Pat: sexless, strange, to be laughed at but also to be feared. Yet we are sexual beings. We love and we make love, we make art and poetry, we do research and we teach.

What I hope to do with this blog is make it known we exist, and that we are as diverse in personality and character as anyone who finds meaning in the terms man or woman. We are not crazy, we are not going through "a phase", we are as intelligent, sensitive, and human as anyone else. What is in a name? Only a means to an end, not a coffin.