Beyond the Binary: Question Fourteen
June 25, 2013 § 5 Comments
A really, really common question this morning – panel bios here.
How were you able to decipher your identity? I’m having major issues working out how to even start! How do I gender?!
CN: Well, it helped when I stopped thinking that the ‘identity’ I was trying to decipher was in any way different from the self that was doing the deciphering, though it took a while. I remember, when I first came out, that expectation that I needed to find a category, as it were – almost like all these ‘types’ of people I could appear to be were lined up like different cuts of jeans in a store and I needed to pick one to wear. It took a few years, and a lot of soul-searching and reading, before I realised that gender was no different from any other part of myself – that I knew who I was, and I didn’t know who I was, that the ‘was’ was always changing, that I was the self asking the questions as much as the self being interrogated and, frankly, the idea of fitting that into a discrete category didn’t define me – that the words I chose to use were just tools, nothing more.
Like anything else in life, I think that working out what feels comfortable for you and what doesn’t is a mixture of trial and error – made easier, to my mind, with a fuckload of research. Not just other people’s books/art/movies etc. but deliberately researching your own comfort zones, what feels right, what doesn’t, under what conditions…and it’s a process that never really ends. Toi toi!
GrrlAlex: I struggled historically because the language and ideas I’d been explosed to growing up and in early adulthood hadn’t allowed me to find an identity that felt congruent. When I first learned about transsexuals in my late teens/early twenties the script was very simplistic and it appeared that being sexually attracted to women ruled me out since back then claiming an identity as a lesbian transwomen didn’t seem possible. In my forties whilst research the MSc I discovered transgender and the idea that brains could biologically have a gender identity based on latent interests and traits deemed socially to be congruent with either ‘male’ or ‘female’ descriptors. The idea of transgender allowed me to embrace authenticity – but aware of the limitations of ‘passing’ as a transwomen I set out to see if it was possible to live as a women within a ‘male’ body. Part of this process has been to create an image that has a congruent aesthetic – I seek to communicate femaleness on a male frame rather than trying to ‘pass’ as a woman (or worse being read as merely cross-dresser) – at this level the beard serves as a useful social rubrik for “trans”.
Nat: In my case I was aware in my teens that I was uncomfortable with my gender role and the results of puberty, and felt that I was supposed to be androgynous,. Unfortunately this was the late 1990s and there were very few resources about gender outside of the binary and none that I came across that suggested it could be transitioned to. My physical dysphoria increased as secondary sexual characteristics developed in late adolescence and I was forced to a crisis point of adopting a binary trans identity in order to access medial transition aged 19. It then took me several more years to pick apart my increased comfort with my body with my continued discomfort with social role and perceptions, including a period of ‘detransition’ or ‘retransition’ to a more neutral and comfortable presentation. I went through a period of trying hard to present and ‘pass’ as androgynous before settling into simply being comfortable and happy with myself without worrying about how that appeared to others.
During this period, I also went through a long set of increasingly specific and more convoluted identities in the attempt to decipher my gender and come up with the words that described it exactly. I eventually found more peace in choosing to ignore the specifics of identity and focus on the practical aspects. What made me most happy and comfortable? How did I want people to see me? How did I want people to treat me? Did I like to be gendered by others and under what circumstances? Which pronouns and gendered language felt affirming and which misgendering? Which set of hormones worked best and which body parts caused dysphoria? Were my preferences consistent, and did that actually matter?
I can see myself in the definitions and descriptions in several specific nonbinary identities, but I ultimately found more comfort in identifying with the wider umbrella terms and focusing on being my authentic and unrestricted self within them.
Jennie: Some people seem to have a stronger sense of gender than others, and this goes across the board, regardless of what that gender is or how it relates to the body they were born with. This means that, for some people, it will always be hard to empathise with those who feel gender recognition is something they need to fight for. That’s okay – it’s still possible to be an ally even if you don’t ‘get it’ on an emotional level.
Speaking personally, I didn’t really get it for a large portion of my life. I knew I was different but I didn’t understand how. I considered that perhaps I was transsexual, but ultimately I didn’t feel that I would be any more comfortable in my skin if I transitioned. Then, when I was in my late twenties, I finally got clarification of the diagnosis that was made in my teens, and discovered I was intersex. Suddenly, a huge number of things made sense. I felt, for the first time, that I had a wider set of gender options. I realised there really was something different about me, and I realised that it was time to stop blaming all women for failing to think and feel and act in a way that tallied more closely with my experience (I have healthy friendships with lots of women now; I had relatively few before). It was a huge relief. Latterly, of course, I realised that gender comfort should never have depended on my understanding of my body, but it is very hard to identify oneself as non-binary in a world where there is so little visibility for non-binary people. I hope that will change for future generations.
Hel: To begin with an ideological answer: your identity is not necessarily something you can ‘decipher’. You are a unique, complex, changing individual. The person you are now is not the person you were 5 years ago or the person you will be in 5 years now. While trans people are often encouraged to narrativise their experiences of gender – this whole “I always knew I was a boy/girl/other” thing – it’s not always that simple. It’s not as though you’re digging in the garden of your soul and slowly uncovering some perfect gem-like substance that is the unchanging core of Who You Are. There is no One True Trans Experience, and there is no certainly no one way to be trans (or to be male or female or genderqueer or non-binary…) There’s an awesome comic strip about this called ‘transcension’, by Katie Diamond and Johnny Blazes – it’s in Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, which I really recommend getting hold of if you can. (Actually, generally I’d recommend Gender Outlaws and GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary to anyone doing some soul-searching about gender stuff – there are so many different personal perspectives on gender in each book, it’s really eye-opening.)
So, perhaps it might be worth reframing things for yourself: what are the best ways I can describe my relationship to my body, to my gender role? How do I want to move through the world and be perceived in it? What language fits me, what language do I feel I can claim as mine, what articulates the way I feel? How do I transcribe the contours of myself as language, like a map-maker transcribes the land in paper and ink? Remember that our understandings of ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ are just the constructs of our current cultural moment – they’re not immutable truth. They are ways of understanding and expressing truth, but they also mould it to fit them – language and experience in a never-ending feedback loop. Like a great many of us, you’ll probably pick your way through a jumble of confusions and decisions, and take your time working out what works best for you.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you some practical advice to go along with this rather high-flown rhetoric. In terms of where to start: examining your feelings about your gender/sex/body is always useful. Maybe try taking some time alone with a massive sheet of paper and just writing out all the things that are confusing you, then trying to sift through it. If you live in the sort of environment where this is possible, try experimenting by doing different things with your gender-presentation and see what makes you feel most comfortable, most like yourself. Pick a new pronoun – even a new name – and ask the people around you to use it for a given period of time. How do you feel about it? What feels right, what feels comfortable? Is it exciting because it’s new, or exciting because it’s right? (Or perhaps, is a feeling of newness in itself what’s right for you – do you need to feel fluid, in motion?) How do you feel about going back to your previous name when that time is up?
I also think it’s very much worth reading Natalie Reed’s “How Do I Know If I’m Trans?” piece – her blog is now down, but it’s on the Wayback Machine here.