An open letter to the author of “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.”

Phoebe North
Jan 14 · 9 min read

Dear Isabel:

I read in the comments of your short story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter,” on Clarkesworld, that you plan to pull your story.

I understand your choice — I respect your choice — but I wish, for my own sake, for the sake of those like me, that you wouldn’t.

I want you to know how your story came to me: via a community of trans and non-binary writers. One had expressed concern that your story might be a troll story, written by some pup from an infamous pack of pitiful pups with the intention of co-opting the Hugo Awards with anti-trans rhetoric. In light of that, I was surprised by what I found when I clicked over to Clarkesworld. A story with — sure — some areas for debatable truth, but, first and foremost, a story in which I found myself reflected.

A trans story.

Some background on myself: I am thirty-six years old, a parent, a professional writer. I was assigned female at birth. Even five years ago I referred to myself as someone with a “gender non-conforming childhood.” Episodes of cross-dressing, of peeing standing up (or trying to pee standing up). A predilection, into adulthood, for male-coded bathroom products. Old Spice and Axe body spray, which I learned to hide in the back of my medicine cabinet when it became a punchline in jokes about adolescent boys. A secret urge to wear men’s underwear, to stop shaving my legs or armpits, which I never gave into. Other secret urges, like stuffing my underpants with socks, which I did, but only in private, never mentioning this to anyone.

I was mostly attracted to boys, then men, and the gay men I knew certainly weren’t interested. The price to dating straight boys, it seemed, was to become a girl. They were already the ones who perpetuated homophobic violence against me: calling me a dyke, threatening to rape me. Odd, how I was never scared of them. I wanted them, mostly. And so I began to learn to be a girl for them, in my odd way. Shaving off my body hair, my edges, making my square peg fit in a round hole.

It was unsatisfying and frequently upsetting. I could make a study of girlhood — learn make-up tips from my goth roommate in college, cut up and reconstruct my t-shirts and take pictures we didn’t yet call selfies with toy cameras like those girls from Livejournal — but I couldn’t make myself happy in girlhood.

It was the way I was talked over, condescended to by the men in my philosophy classes even though I knew I was smarter than they were. It was the way that I was interrupted, assumed weak, intellectually, physically. Valued mostly only when they were flirting with me. This was sexism, yes, and it was wrong because it was sexist, but often my anger wasn’t for all womankind for being thought small and worth interrupting. It was for myself — white hot anger and grief at being denied something I secretly, desperately wanted.

I was obsessed with Margaret Atwood’s Power Politics. While I settled into a relationship with a steady, sweet, and fundamentally equitable person who would one day be my spouse, I struggled to explain to other girls during dorm room chats why no, I was not interested in letting my boyfriend choke me. I was a top and I was dominant, and that’s not gender, or it’s not only gender, but it was a part of my gender. I hated, above all, to be objectified, disembodied, looked at the way so many girls I know loved to be looked at. Even as I shaved my body hair, plucked my eyebrows, learned how to use foundation. I was trying to pass as a woman using the same tricks those other women used, but I hated being looked at as a woman.

Or touched. Or reminded of my physical form. Tattoos were alright — they made me feel like I was in control of this messy body, and they felt tough, and I liked feeling tough — but not massages, or haircuts. I hated being reminded, in a quotidian way — that I had a body at all. It came up again and again in my writing.

She wanted to be concrete and steel girders.

She wanted to be a robot, just a sequence of ones and zeroes.

I peel off my face for you and reveal circuits in place of sinews.

and sometimes, most revealingly: she wanted him, but she also wanted to be him. To murder him and walk around in his skin.

I’ve often said I have low physical dysphoria, but it’s not entirely true. I have a low interest in medical transition. But the physical dysphoria has always been there, behind other feelings. When could my body finally be mine? Not existing for someone else’s gaze but for the raw pleasures it gave me? I saw the ease with which men move their physical bodies through the universe and felt jealous. I saw women performing femininity better than me and felt jealous, too.

It wasn’t until I came out in my early thirties that this all snapped into place — so much dysphoria, finally recognized as dysphoria. So much useless striving, and for what? To turn myself into someone else’s flawed idea of a woman, instead of my own idea of myself. Sometimes I had felt a glimmer of myself. When cross-playing the 11th Doctor, in suspenders and a bow tie. When dressed as a knight for Halloween in fifth grade. When wearing 4" platform boots I bought from Hot Topic in high school. When dressed as John Lennon for a seventh grade English project. When I got up on stage that same summer and rattled off one of Tevye’s monologues from Fiddler on the Roof. There he was. Me. Euphoria. You’re trans. I know that you know what I mean.

It feels like this.

Isabel, here are the parts of your story that resonated for me:

I decided that I was done with womanhood, over what womanhood could do for me; I wanted to be something furiously new.

To the people who say a woman would’ve refused to do what I do, I say —

Isn’t that the point?

and

When I was a woman I wanted to be good at woman.

and

When I was a woman I wanted to have friends who would gasp at the precision and surprise of my gifts.

(One of the last gender-related meltdowns I had before my egg cracked was over the fear that, if I didn’t make an acceptable dish for a pot luck, I would be found out as not a real woman. Real women, I’ve learned, don’t worry about these things — no matter the quality of their casseroles.)

It’s a sense of passing. Walking down the street in the right clothes, with the right partner, to the right job. That feeling. Have you felt it?

and

I remember being a woman. I remember it the way you remember that old, beloved hobby you left behind.

and

I was always aware of being small: aware that people could hurt me. I spent a lot of time thinking about things that had happened right before something awful.

I have seen people online criticize the last point; women aren’t small, aren’t inherently or universally small; this may be a point of misogyny, they say. I don’t know what to tell them. I’m 5'3.75". I stopped growing at 12, roughly a calendar year after the onset of my period. I am just below average height for a woman; well below average height for a man. I’m told that I don’t seem short — I puff up with pride at this, even though I know there is nothing inherently wrong with being short. But there is something wrong with my being short.

“I could never date someone shorter than me,” my friends in college, multiple friends, told me, “I would feel like a giantess.”

“Don’t lift the heavy weights, girls,” the gym teacher said, “You don’t want to get too bulky.”

But I wanted to be bulky, to take up space. I could feel how my looking up to people — everyone — shifted the power dynamics. Even firmly worded requests sounded whiny, or were taken as whiny. I learned to wear thick-soled boots. I’ve contemplated lifts. I’ve lifted weights. Some dysphorias can be alleviated. Not this one. None of this matters, except it matters. Do you also have a body that is the “wrong” size for your idea of yourself, Isabel? I suspect you do.

When I was a woman I wanted to machine myself.

I used to be obsessed with Cake’s “Short Skirt Long Jacket.” Okay, I am still obsessed with Cake’s “Short Skirt Long Jacket.”

The first time I ever meant to masturbate I imagined one of those women coming into my house, picking the lock, telling me exactly what to do, how to be like her. I told my first boyfriend about this, I showed him pictures, and he said, girl, you bi as hell, which was true, but also wrong. Because I did not want those dresses, those heels, those bodies in the way I wanted my boyfriend. I wanted to possess that power. I wanted to have it and be it.

The yearning that I used to feel when looking at the Delia*s catalog. Girls who were attractive, yes. But girls who also knew how to effortlessly be girls. I didn’t know their secrets. I was not one of them.

Have you ever been exultant? Have you ever known that you are a triumph? Have you ever felt that it was your whole life’s purpose to do something, and all that you needed to succeed was to be entirely yourself?

To be yourself well is the wholest and best feeling that anything has ever felt.

I put on a tie and a button-down shirt. I wear my tallest shoes. I walk differently, hold my hands in my pockets differently. I do not move from the middle of the sidewalk when I pass men on the sidewalk. I move aside for women. I have worn an unfortunate fedora. I have craved the worst parts of manhood. Tipping my hat at them. Milady.

“Are you happy?” Axis asks.

Good to talk now. Keep my conscious mind from interfering with the gearbox of reflexes below. “Yeah,” I say, and I blow out a breath into my mask, “yeah, I am,” a lightness in my ribs, “yeah, I feel good.”

“Why do you think we just blew up a school?”

Why did I text my best friend the appearance and license number of all my cab drivers, just in case? Because those were the things that had to be done.

Listen: I exist in this context. To make war is part of my gender.

When you have been denied these parts of yourself it is easy to take too-much pleasure in the crueler parts of yourself. I have felt the lure of toxic masculinity. To never suffer fools, gladly, or at all. To talk over quieter voices. To leer. To take up space, my own, and others’.

It happens, someone at my support group tells me. You are still learning what masculinity means. Most boys got that out of their systems at thirteen. You were preoccupied.

I am learning to make space in my gender for flexibility, for queering, for gentleness. I’m remembering to be like Fred Rogers, too. What do you do with the mad that you feel? I once wanted to destroy my body, to blow it apart until, like Dr. Manhattan, I was nothing but a circulatory system. Then, when I put myself back together, I could be a perfectly composed image of masculinity with a huge, swinging dick.

If I couldn’t make myself — force myself — into being the perfect paper doll of the woman I thought they all wanted me to be, I wanted to be an attack helicopter, instead.

I don’t want that, anymore.

Whatever you decide to do with your story, Isabel, thank you for writing your story. Thank you for making me feel seen and heard. We don’t get a lot of ourselves in fiction. We often only get scraps. This was more than that. A mirror.

Yours,
Phoebe North

Phoebe North

Written by

storyteller. sap. they/them pronouns.

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