This is the fifth article in a series I’m writing on gender. Equal parts personal narrative and transgender studies I hope to explore topics that have, by-and-large, been nagging at me for some time, but that I haven’t taken the time to write about. What does a thing called “The Cyborg Manifesto” have to do with being trans? What’s the relationship between transgender people and Frankenstein’s Monster? What are neopronouns and why do they upset some people? These are just some of the topics I hope to address in this series.
I can’t remember the first time I saw the word transtrender, or the first time it was used to refer to me. I remember my hesitancy about all of it. Here was the alleged line in the sand, if you’re truly transgender, that means you believe in the experience of gender dysphoria, and you should want to transition. Anyone else, who didn’t hold these two things to be true, but who claimed to be trans, was a transtrender.
It didn’t take me any time at all to realize that was absurd. I suppose it was the perfect confluence of the trans people I surrounded myself with, the discourse I was reading on Tumblr, the conversations I was having in queer spaces and what I was learning in gender studies courses.
Gender isn’t made because biology made it — I wish I could pinpoint the timeframe when in I decided this for myself. In 2014 I gave a speech at a speech competition arguing for gender-neutral parenting, and I tried to use bio-chemistry and psychology to do it. By 2015/2016 I was embracing being a transtrending piece of shit.
It’s always tempting, isn’t it, to try to use available science to validate our lived gender(ed) experiences? I thought so for a time, but as I grew in my own gender, it didn’t make any sense. If I already knew that my penis didn’t make me a man, why would I bother to try to secure that I had brain chemistry or circumstances of socialization that made me a woman?
Gender is a social construct — this much hasn’t been revolutionary for a while, even those who believe that men and women come, respectfully, from males and females, have been able to accept that how men and women act and why is, at least partly, socially determined. The idea of gender as a social construct has reclaimed its revolutionary potential, however. People are naming their genders in ways never seen before. The old critique of “my gender is attack helicopter” has been consumed in the never-ending ways in which people are defining and redefining their gender.
“Yeah, ok Jess. You can say your gender is Wario, but what does that mean?”
What does it mean, indeed! What has gender ever meant? Because I was thought to be a boy, my dad thought it appropriate to tell me that I was the man of the house — At a young age, still in elementary school — I was supposed to know how to protect my adult mother and my younger sister should something happen, or at least, I was supposed to be emotionally prepared to do whatever I needed to to protect them. Except I have always had just about the emotional intelligence of a raisin, but I was a boy (wasn’t I?), and so in my dad’s absence (even as one as temporary and routine as his going to work) I was to prepare to be a man, again, at elementary school age.
What did gender mean when I would tremble in terror trying on women’s clothes as a kid? What did gender mean each time I tried to come out to my parents and it never worked? What did gender mean when I was asked if I was a boy or a girl and I didn’t know the answer (Has that come up in every one of these posts now)? What did it mean each time I wore a skirt out and someone had the audacity to ask me if I lost a bet? What did gender mean the time I wore a skirt out (in the era when I still had to wear it under my pants to sneak it past my dad) and someone ran his hand up it in front of his girlfriend as a joke? What does it mean if my gender expression is a punch line of which my body is used for the set up?
With all of this, I ask with all the sincerity I can muster, what has any gender ever meant? My dad knew that he could dress me up in a man’s gender and for him that meant preparing me to be some sort of protector and provider. Those who antagonized me in middle school knew they could dress me in a man’s gender that meant waiting until I was dating a man to paint me as a queer and a faggot (when the truth was that I was a queer and a faggot all along).
I’ve wrestled my entire life to understand what gender means, I’ve wrestled my entire life to understand what my gender(s) mean. And for this, I’ve always made a weak ally to the gender abolitionists, though I do support their cause. My gender was hidden. My gender lived in bathroom walls, my gender lived in a body shaking so completely with terror, my gender lived under clothes that weren’t mine, my gender lived in journal fragments, in the daydreams of the day that I would get called Jessica, my gender lived in fantasies, before I knew what HRT or GRS was, of going away for a long time and coming back to my family as the woman I always wanted to be and being accepted with open arms, my gender lived under the weight of my dad suggesting that testosterone would straighten me out.
And six years ago, I happened across Gender Outlaw and finally someone gave me permission to be myself. And I’ve realized that I can never completely leave behind the genders that others have given me, I can never wholesale depart from who my dad wanted me to be, but I can realize that what he wanted me to be doesn’t have to be limited to being a man, even if he can’t, or won’t, realize that.
When I first read Gender Outlaw, I was ecstatic to come out to myself again, I was ecstatic to finally be a woman in my own mind’s eye. But it wasn’t ever that simple. I would meet people with plant genders and star genders and dog genders and I would realize the elasticity of this thing we call a social construct.
No direct answer I could come up with now about what my Wario gender means would be satisfactory to the critic. That may be, I don’t have anything wholly new to add to the discourse, save my own testimony. After Doug Heffernan, Wario was probably the second fat fictional character I fell in love with and felt a connection to. Wario, rocking that purple and yellow, being unapologetically fat, ranging from friendly competitor to down-right antagonist, Wario was someone for me to relate to. I was no one’s Mario, I was no one’s Peach — and I didn’t want to be. So why is my gender Wario? Because when you’ve had to live as long as I have being forced to wear the genders other people want you to wear, when you finally get your own sense of autonomy, you may be so inclined to go off the beaten track. Once I foisted off all the put-on genders I was subject to and came to my own, I eventually realized that why shouldn’t my gender be Wario? I’m a fat outcast little shit who likes purple.
Let me move away from this attempt to explain my Wario gender to talk about another important component to all of this, that I alluded to earlier. The medical model of being transgender, which is the dominating model in the United States (I’ve talked about this in detail in this series already, haven’t I? Never hurts to be thorough!), dictates that a transgender person will first experience dysphoria, they will go to a therapist who will confirm that what they are in fact feeling is dysphoria, they will then, therapist and endocrinologist willing, start hormone replacement therapy (to alleviate the gender dysphoria), and finally, they will pursue (the very expensive) gender reassignment surgery. And bam! Gender dysphoria dealt with. Not only that, but look! This person has been kept within the gender binary! How wonderful!
The transtrender says, well, wait a minute. Why should this be the singular way of being trans? It allows for the medical complex and the state to gatekeep access to gender (Are you “really” your gender until the completion of GRS?). It also encourages, apparently, the transgender community to police itself. “Well, no, you aren’t trans,” says the gatekeeper, “If you don’t experience dysphoria,” (And who owns what it means to experience gender dysphoria? WPATH?! I talk a bit about dysphoria and social dysphoria in my piece on what it means to be an agender trans woman.)
Well that’s not how being trans(-) works. Let us go, as I always do, to my favorite dictionary, Merriam-Webster. The ole MW tells us that trans, as a prefix, can mean a number of things, “on or to the other side of : across : beyond,” “through,” “so or such as to change or transfer.”
The prefix offers us an opportunity to reexamine the ways we look at gender. My favorite part of the above definition is the word beyond. Imagine — beyondgender.
Maybe (and in fact, I think definitely) those transgender folks, those transtrenders, who don’t experience dysphoria, can lead us beyond gender. I do experience dysphoria, I’m a classic transgender story, dressing up in women’s clothes in third grade, never wanting to be a boy or a man — given this — I do not shy away from making and holding space for trans folks who don’t experience gender dysphoria. Maybe they can teach me about gender euphoria in ways that don’t cost me money I don’t have. Where a Wariogender may seem weird to others, to my transtrending siblings, we can understand the way that socio-medical access to gender is gatekept, but that access to identifying my gender in or through the embodiment of a fictional character can come as cheap as free. If I’m already Frankenstein’s Monster every time I put on a skirt, before I ever even take a dose of estrogen, then why should I attempt to reproduce onto others the isolation that I feel? Why should I light my own torch against those seeking places to belong and be accepted when the scowls on the faces of those who hate me are burned into my memory?
We have nothing to gain from policing one another. We have nothing to gain from denying that a gender can form from a connection to celestial bodies, to plants, to animals, to fictional characters, to anything.
When I haven’t been able to afford proper mental health care, I have been able to indulge in transtrending, when I haven’t been able to afford HRT I have been able to afford to say that my pronouns are wa/was/waself — knowing transtrenders, and becoming/being one myself, has given me space to survive. I go out in public and I get misgendered, I go see my family and I get deadnamed, I still question what spaces I’m allowed into, and I still use the men’s restroom — we haven’t won the battles of the public sphere yet (and I’m right here fighting them with every other transgender person), but that is no reason to look at so-called transtrenders and tell them to sit and wait their turn. When I’m put in a position where I’m made to feel like I have to pick a side — I pick the transtrenders every time.
For me the person who accepts me as transgender but not as a transtrender isn’t any safer to me than a person who doesn’t accept me as either. The last time I came out to myself, I gave up compartmentalizing myself to make other people comfortable.
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