Posts Tagged ‘Dysphoria’

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Trans Girl with a Lesson Plan II

13 May, 2016
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a trans woman trying to teach in a public high school? If so, read on and learn about my day.
     It started before I got in the building. The principal meet me outside and said that (we’ll call him) “K’s” guardian “isn’t going to let his grade stand. They’re gonna fight this.” I told him, “K has missed 29 days of school and was tardy 42 times on the days he was present. HIs grade is a 48% and he needs a 73% to pass.” The principal said, “I know, and I’ve got you 100%, but they’re gonna fight it.” So, a lovely opening to my day, but that’s not all that will happen.
     Because the seniors are no longer required to come to school, I have been substituting for other teachers. I start the day off with a teacher’s credit recovery class. I’m not in there for thirty seconds when the first of the kids comes in. He takes one look at me and says, “Oh, hell no. I’m not sittin’ in no room with an it.” They walked out and the three students behind him followed suit. In the end, I had one student in the classroom.
     Halfway through this first period, I get called down to the guidance office to talk to a student about his grades. Oh, surprise, it’s K. I explained to him exactly what I told the principal and tell him the choices he made during the school year have lead him to a point of no return. There is no recovery for fourth quarter. He will have to do summer school. Then I’m sent to sub another class.
     Twenty-minutes later I get called in to meet with a different student and his mother. When the mother enters the room she looks at me, winces, and averts her eyes. I’ve seen this before, you can’t be a trans woman and not recoginise this look. She is so disturbed or offended by what she sees when she looks at me that she cannot bring herself to look at me. My HR person had the same reaction when I came out at work; after that he never looked directly at me again. So, we all stand up to shake mom’s hand. I offer my hand and she will not shake it. I’m standing there like a dope with my hand out, as everyone looks at us feeling awkward, but not near as awkward as I felt or even awkward enough to justify not saying something about this situation. She slowly take a deep breath, holds it, loosely places her hand in mine for about two seconds, then wipes it off on her jeans while expelling her held breath so she doesn’t catch whatever disease I have. She avoids looking at me the whole time, even when I was speaking to her directly. Oh, and it is my fault her whole family is coming to see her son not graduate.
     Then it’s K again. We have to call his mom to talk about his grade. It’s a conference call with the principal and vice principal included. Mom doesn’t acknowledge my presence except to ask what work I will give him so he can graduate. I explain everything all over again. She refuses to acknowledge what I have said. I explain about the summer school program. She says, “I hope you won’t be teaching it.” That’s all I get out of her the whole meeting.
     Then it’s back to my room for thirty minutes. Five of which are taken up by K emailing me pleading me to give him some work that will raise his 48 to a 73. The next twenty-five are taken up by a student who was part of the group I sponsored. He spent his time trying to guilt trip, whine, threaten, and cry his way out of the 60% he earned. Mind you, he’s still graduating because he earned 90+ over the required percentage for the year. When that fails he tells me, “I’m disappointed in you You think that you fight for equality but you don’t. If you can’t see I’m a good kid and deserve a better grade then you don’t stand for equality.” I told him the conversation was over and he had to leave. He sat there arguing for ten minutes, refusing to leave the room, despite my asking and telling him to leave no less than seven times. He finally left when I went to page security to the room. He left saying, “I’m gonna pray for you because you need it. God bless you and thank you for the service you rendered.” I locked my door so he couldn’t come back.
     Then I dealt with another email from K. This one tells me he will be homeless if I don’t change his grade and I will have personally ruined his future.
     Now it is fourth period. I have had no lunch and no planning (which is supposed to be third period.) Instead, I go to a science classroom to sub for a ninth grade teacher. It is acknowledged by the administrator that this is a very poorly behaved class. He used the words “out of control,” Why he thought I was a good fit for that is beyond me. It takes ten minutes to get them out of the hall and seated. I have to shut and lock the door because there is a different group of ninth graders in the hall mocking the “man in the dress.” They begin banging on the door. The students ignore me, ignore the instructions, ignore the school rules, and ingnore everything except their phones. Well, all except one student, who we will call “H.” H gets on his FaceTime and begins telling a student at another school that some “he-she is supposed to be watching us.” H then tries to let the students from the hallway into the classroom. I stand in front of the door and block him. He says, “Hey, SIR, I wanna let them in.” I stand there and say nothing. He goes to sit back down saying “He looked like he wants to knock my ass.” I call for the administrator; when he arrives he takes over the class and tells me to write the boy up. I do, but I also realise that nothing will actually be done about it.
     Then it’s back to my room. I answer one more email from K who tells me I should have been telling him everyday that he was failing because the failed papers, failed tests, failed grades in the system, and the failed grades on his progress report weren’t enough to for him to know that he was failing.
     The phone rings. It’s the credit recovery teacher letting me know I’ll be teaching the seniors who failed . . . starting Monday . . . for the next month.
     I turn off the lights, curl into my desk chair, and hide in the dark for the next fifty minutes. Hoping no one else will call or knock before I can leave for the day.
That is what it is like to be a trans woman teaching in the public education system.
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Caitlín

7 April, 2016
On Monday, 1 August, 1977 a baby girl named Caitlín was born to two loving parents. They were told to raise her as a boy. No one understood that she was a girl. Her parents did a good job of raising her and gave her many moments of joy, but that joy was interspersed among gorges of self-hate, fear, and confusion about why God or the Universe would make people think she was a boy. Life was always stressful and there was a weight of pain and responsibility for other people’s happiness and welfare always dragging her below the surface.
Eventually, this all became too much. Her health declined and she came very close to her body just shutting down on her. She decided to save herself and become herself. Her parents still loved her, but she lost almost everything in the process. Much of her family, nearly every friend, her wife, her economic security, her safety leaving the house, and she was ex-communicated from her church. Her job was openly hostile and they put her in as many horrible situations as they could because they could not fire her. She almost broke.
Piece by piece, over many years, she began to rebuild her life. She deepened the few remaining friendship she had, she built new friendships, she eventually found someone who could love her for who she was. Work, however, continued to be a place of violence and abuse that whittled away at her heart, though she developed a few friendships that could provide her with safety when she most needed it. The administration, many staff, many students, and even parents were actively against her and continue to be so. They do their best to hurt her and they are trying to get her removed. Her greatest fear is that they will eventually succeed or that they will finally break her.
I am Caitlín and this is my life.
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Escapism (a Caitlin On … post)

24 September, 2012

Sundays are by tradition a day to relax. Trade your heels for a ratty pair of sneakers, put your hair up in a ponytail, and bum around in a pair of sweats. On Saturday you ran your errands and on Monday you go back to work but now, for a lovely twenty-four hours, you are responsibility free. Some people chose to spend that time in worship, others with family, and still others at the local gym getting buff and hot or at least checking out those who are. Ultimately people are opting to hide from the every day by engaging themself in activity that leaves weekly stressors behind and engages them in the now. For me that now-centred activity is movies. Old or new, A-list or B-cheese, black and white, Technicolor, or digital doesn’t matter; just give me a plot and a character to root for. It’s my escape, my chance to leave my world behind and slip into someone else’s. So it came as quite a shock this last Sunday when the exciting suspense/horror film I was watching thrust me back into my world.

A friend and I went to see House at the End of the Street. This was a four star suspense piece; the writers set complications and clues up in advance, revealed back story at key moments, and provided several throw your popcorn everywhere scares. I cannot in any way fault the writing. On near equal level were the actors. Lawrence and Shue were excellent and Thieroit was very James Dean (they even allude to Dean in one scene). But the big suspense-filled twist is what knocked me head first down the basement stairs landing me with an abrupt crash back into my world.

Those of you who do not wish to have the end of the film revealed should stop reading now. If you don’t plan on seeing this flicker, don’t mind spoilers, or are just painfully curious, feel free to read on.

I’m not joking; I’m going to give away the end.

… Shh! Spoilers …

The film’s final twist hit me in the spot I use films to escape from: my dysphoria. (I’m serious this your last chance to stop before I give aways the big reveal.) When Josh was little, he was damaged in a way that plays on the Norman Bates motif. He witnessed his sister’s accidental death and, after druggie dad buries her in the woods, crack-addled mom, in a new twist on forced feminisation, declares Josh is Carrie Anne and forces him to live as her for ten years before he, inevitably, murders his parents. This reveal did not so much knock me out of the movie’s world as it did merge it with my own and raised two major issues for me.

The first is the essential nature of transsexualism, that is dysphoria, living your life as one person while knowing you are someone else. I imagine this plot twist would be particularly triggering for trans men. The distressing image of a little boy in a dress pleading “I’m not Carrie Anne” will resonate with the darker natures of their pasts and dysphoria. As a trans woman, I also found the scene dysphoria triggering, as I recalled moments from my past that, though reversed, were equally damaging.

The second is how feminisation of the masculine is depicted as an act of insanity. Now, it cannot be argued that what mom did was sane or rational, clearly she was broken by crack and grief, but the use of this forced feminisation as the back story for the demonisation of Josh was difficult for me to see. In part because Josh was victim to a process that runs an uncomfortable parallel to fantasies from my past. A lot of trans people don’t talk about the gender swap fantasies they had while growing up; they are uniquely personal and can often be a source of shame or a hinderance to the process of transition. In fact, I know almost nothing of the swap fantasies of trans men; this is not a belittling of trans male struggles but a recognition that these struggles are so personal there is a reluctance to discuss them, even with those who would be likely to understand. I know more about trans feminine swap fantasies because I had them and because brave authoresses (like Bornstein, Serrano, Boylan, and Connelly) have written about theirs. It seems the scenario painted by the writers of House at the End of the Street is typical of the male to female swap fantasy, that is, the feminisation is almost always forced. This is not because we don’t want to transition but because the social stigma of someone perceived as male acting female is so great that we cannot admit, even in our fantasies, that this is something we want. In the fantasy the feminisation is forced because it frees our minds of having to accept responsibility for what we are feeling and we can enjoy the result without the guilt of acknowledging we are rejecting the “gift” of masculinity. The film’s demonisation of feminisation gives its fatal thrust in Josh’s last scene where, locked in his padded room, he accepts he is Carrie Anne.

These are the thoughts that intruded on my quiet Sunday movie escape. But, that’s the thing about escaping, eventually you need to return. As much as we say we want to get away from our weekly stressors we cannot help dragging them into our idyllic free time. Worship can leave us feeling we haven’t been doing our best (“forgive me for what I have done and what I have left undone”), our families drive us crazy with their when are you getting married and can you do me a favour questions, seeing McBuff at the gym reminds us why we had to go to the gym to begin with, and a good movie always leads you back into the world you thought you had left behind.

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Living in the Cut

30 August, 2012

Balding, drawn, and haggard
Beat by time and life:
Testosterone the dagger
That took away her life.

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Getting There is the Battle

6 June, 2012

Getting There is the Battle
by: River Eller

::getting ready to go to work. hating the prep time::

Shaving entails feet, legs, hands, arms, chest, under arms, shoulders, face, and neck; it is a tremendous pain in the tucked region and generally takes an hour and a half. I did most of it the night before so it only took twenty minutes this morning. It saves time to do it in stages, but that means everyday there is a different area that needs shaving and, every now and then (read: last night) shooting stars, planets, blue moons, and horseshoes align and I have to do it all at once. The exceptions to the stagger-shave rule are my face and neck, that’s everyday. I am still figuring out how much pressure to apply to each area, so I cut myself, a lot. I cut myself twice last night, once on a toe and once behind the knee.

After a scalding shower (it needs to be scalding to burn away my dysphoria), I towel dry my hair and shave my face. I also brush my teeth. I do this all by the glow of the nightlight. It is enough light to see by while being dark enough I won’t glimpse body parts I cannot handle seeing.

::a quick blast with the blow comb. hating my forehead; cursing mentally—and a little under my breath—fiddling with my hair::

I stare into the mirror. A brush in one hand and volumising spray in the other. I always flip my bangs to one side then the other then straight down. I brush them back to add lift …

::seeing my forehead again; struggling against the tears::

… and then back down. It wants to part to the right and leave the thinning spots distressingly noticeable. I brush it toward the left side. Better.

::still noticeable and oh goddess! that forehead::

I let the sides and back of my not-straight-not-curly-and-still-to-short hair flop down as it pleases. At least it is chin length now, which means fewer days in a wig.

::smiling at my reflection then frowning because I forgot to do my make-up before my hair; chastising myself; making myself feel bad because I deserve it, they tell me I deserve it.::

My foundation is powder. I tried the liquid but it clumps to the stubble as the five o’clock shadow comes in. Powder is lighter and can be re-applied quickly without a caked on look. I can do this because I am blonde and my shadow is almost non-existent.

::thanking the goddess I am blonde::

I apply some blush and, because I was feeling dysphoric yesterday, I decide to femme it up with eye liner (brown), eye shadow (green), and mascara (Lushes Lashes). I use just a hint of eye liner in my eyebrows to make them a touch more visible. Then the whole thing is sprayed with De-Slick, a mattifying spray.

::redoing my hair; feeling bitchy because it doesn’t look as good as the first time; still hating my forehead::

My outfit is cute; they always are. They need to be because jeans and a t-shirt get me clocked. (child: Mommy, why is that boy wearing make-up?) Today it is a dark, denim-like-blue, cotton skirt from Old Navy and a green and white, floral peasant top from Macy’s. I adjust my tuck to prevent accidental bulging.

::I thought it was supposed to shrivel from lack of use; it’s been a year, why is it still so huge? sighs::

I rub baby-boy Mulder, my black cat, on the head. “Be a good boy,” I tell him. “Or girl,” I add, “which ever you feel you are.”

::heading out; locking the door behind me::

Traffic is light, which is good because I left ten minutes late and have to speed to make-up the time. I push the car to seventy and hope that the people doing eighty are the ones who get pulled over. The posted limit is forty-five, but everyone does sixty. Well, everyone except the dump trucks, they do thirty and scatter themselves across all three lanes creating a string of weaving, merging vehicles at inconsistent speeds. I hate speeding or doing anything I could get pulled over for; I don’t want to deal with bigoted police officers. (cop: Sir, your license says female. Please, step out of the car, sir.)

::parking; rushing into the building::

I’m still late. Teachers are supposed to be there at seven; it is five after. On the way into the building, the wind blows my hair to shit. There are students gathered near the door and they see my bald patch. Some snigger, others turn away in disgust, and one grabs his friend’s backpack and pretends to vomit into it. Mr. Veep, the vice principal (read: bigoted asshat) is standing in the doorway, watching.

I smile. “Good morning, Mr. Veep!”

He looks away and down and mumbles a sorta “Good morn-nnmph …”

The office is crowded. It’s always crowded in the morning. Teachers, subs, administration, support staff, students, and parents. Today a group of parents take up half the lobby space. The men are big, I mean, BIG boys. The lightest of the three must weigh in at 225 pounds and his wife isn’t far behind him. The other men aren’t starving, either. Of the other two women, one looks like she could skip meals, plural, everyday for a few weeks and not suffer. The other is so skeletal I’m convinced the big’uns have been eating her meals.

“pardon me” I squeak. I keep my head down and avoid eye contact.

::willing them not to notice::

I slip between them and head to the counter and the staff sign-in sheet. Just three quick strokes, ‘CMS’, and I’m out of the office and into the hallway and sixty-one moderate steps later its the relative safety of a parent free room. dontnoticemedontnoticemedontnoticeme—

“The fuck is that?” the biggest big’un asks. His voice is as large as his stomach and resoundingly deep.

“Oh! That’s MISTER Song,” the skeletal one says. “He teaches literature.”

Big’un grunts. “I always figured boy teachers were fags. Doin’ women’s work.”

“Thank Jay-zus it don’t teach our kids,” says Mrs. Big’un.

Ms. Möbius, our smashing, sweetheart secretary, overhears them—they’re so loud neighbouring schools could hear them—and she says in a firm voice, “Good morning, Ms. Song. My but don’t you look nice today.”

“Thank you, Ms. Möbius. Have a great day!” thankyouthankyouthankyou!

“You do the same, now, dear.”

She’s a blessing, that Ms. Möbius. She also does a damn fine job subbing on those rare occasions I need to call in dysphoric sick.

::out of the office … sixty-one steps … shut the door::

Safe.

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Trans* Love

4 June, 2012

Trans* Love
by: River

::feeling dysphoric and unlovable. feeling out of place with gender. feeling alone.::

The mirror is an enemy. It reflects lies. I can’t look like that; it’s not what I see when I close my eyes. I see smooth, clear skin and long, wavy, ginger hair. I see a face unmarred by time and the ravages of testosterone poisoning. I see me and I am beautiful. But the mirror reflects someone else. It shows a middle aged man in a dress with limp, thinning hair. The mirror shows a scarred and weathered face, five o’clock shadow and cheeks sunken from anxiety and radical diets. The mirror, my reflection, is an abusive partner. It shows what I hate and makes me want to self harm.

::picking up the sterilised shard of glass set aside for this.::

It is easy to picture the cut, performed with surgical steadiness. First it will just seem to be a line. Slowly, blood will bead on the line as my pulse causes it to seep out the sliced skin. I will watch it. The beading will become a rivulet, the rivulet will run down my arm, the blood will drop in perfectly circular splashes onto the hospital white countertop.

It would be gorgeous.

::dialling your number.::

Three, four, five rings. Voicemail.

::wanting to leave a message but not sure what to say.::

The tone. A breath. A long pause.

::hanging up.::

The phone rings; it’s you.

::hesitating.::

Three, four, five. The call goes to voice mail.

Immediately it rings again.

::answering.::

It is you. Concern colours your voice. I try to explain how I feel, but the words are jumbled and twisted. They abuse each other, consume rationality and meaning.

::crying::

Your voice is soft, kind. You are on your way.

::sinking to the floor. Making my six foot one inch frame small and impenetrable.::

You use your key and find me pressed against the counter. You kneel beside me and wrap your arms about me. They are stronger than they were six months ago and the hair is thicker, coarser. You run the back of your hand along my cheek, wiping away tears.

::gazing at you.::

Your face is thinner and more angular. Your pores are larger and patches of brown hair are visible on your cheeks and chin. The brown fuzz overwhelms me with a dizzying combination of lust and dysphoria. You smile and my heart melts.

You stand, all awkward charm and help me to my feet. I sway a little from vertigo and you catch me around my waist. With tenderness, being careful not to cut me or yourself, you open my hand and take the glass shard. You set it back in its case and close the lid. You would never throw it out and that is one of the reasons I love you.

You guide me to the bathroom and start the shower, adjusting it to that perfect temperature of steamy, tolerable, scalding. Heat burns the dysphoria off. As the mirror fogs, you unbutton your shirt and drape it across the laundry hamper. You slip out of your shoes and shed your slacks and boxers. You stand before me in nothing but your binder. You give me a moment to take your tan, handsome body in, before slipping my blouse and bra off. They are deposited in the hamper, along with my skirt and the pantyhose I cut the legs off to secure my tuck.

::sighing. helping you remove your binder.::

We step into into the shower. It scalds. I take the pain into my heart, storing it away as pleasure to be reflected on and relished. You caress my double A breasts; cupping them in your small but powerful hands. You kiss my nipples.

::sighing. massaging your clit-cock.::

You moan, you kiss my neck. You slide your hands down my side and between my legs.

::shivering in anticipation.::

You slip two fingers into the soft, pink flesh of my scrotal sack, fingering a make-shift vagina. You gently knead the soft tissue while kissing the spot where I will eventually have cleavage.

::shuddering. weeping. climaxing beneath your loving touch.::

I do not grow hard and do not come, I have not done so in several months—this is the only reason I can let you touch me,—but I do climax. It is an internal tingling that pulses out from my core, enveloping my whole being. It is blinding in its intensity and I crumple into your waiting arms.

We hold each other as the searing water cascades over us, burning away everything we are not.

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A Queer and Pleasant Review

2 June, 2012

The first thing you need to know about Kate Bornstein is she is a compassionate person. She weaves A Queer and Pleasant Danger (May 1, 2012, Beacon Press) from great lengths of compassion and love. This isn’t just a book, she hasn’t produced a litany of entertaining anecdotes for mass consumption. Her memoirs are a love letter written for her daughter, Jessica, whom she hasn’t seen in thirty years and her grandchildren whom she’s never met. Kate is a former Scientologist and her daughter and grandchildren were born into Scientology and are still in it. As a former Scientologist, the church declared her a suppressive person, an SP; for her to contact someone in the church would destroy that person’s life. As much as she wants to see her daughter again, know she is safe, and tell her she is loved, Kate cannot bring herself to shatter the only world her daughter has ever known. That is compassion; that is love. And that is the purpose behind her book. It is an open love letter to her family in case they ever wonder about and try to find her. You and I, Sweetie, are just lucky folk who get to eavesdrop.

And the reader should feel lucky, because there is a serious lack of authors like Katherine “Auntie Kate” Bornstein in the literary world. Her compassion, honesty, service, and humour are rare and beautiful traits in a society supersaturated with anemic pop culture. She was the first person without a gender I met. Initially we met on paper, in the lines of her wonderful primer, My Gender Workbook. Like Kate, I had been designated male at birth and was living that way, had lived that way for thirty-four years. I scoured amazon.com for the best possible hey-you’re-a-girl-trapped-in-a-man’s-body-but-don’t-give-up-hope-you-have-options book on the market; there are surprisingly few books in this niche. As I surfed the electronic pipeline, I kept coming back to Kate’s My Gender Workbook. It seemed too light, too comfortable with itself and it’s readership, too fun. The book’s subtitle convinced me to buy it: how to become a real man, a real woman, the real you, or something else entirely. This spoke of compassion. Kate genuinely wants to help her readers figure out who they are. Now, fourteen years later, Kate is bringing that same compassion to her memoirs.

The compassion isn’t just for her daughter, grandchildren, and readers. Everyone that Kate writes about in her memoirs she treats with the same tenderness. The world is Kate Bornstein’s lover and she is a gentle partner. Perhaps, it comes from her time as a bottom, the dominated, in the S&M community, though, I suspect, it is from her being a bottom throughout her life. This is something else you should know about Kate: she has always submitted to and served others. From early on she formed herself to the will of others, the world’s daddies, starting with her own daddy. By today’s standards Paul Bornstein would be considered an emotionally abusive man, a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig who could have served as inspiration for Norman Lear‘s Archie Bunker. Kate recognises that Paul was a cruel man. She is under no delusions about that, but she also sees the good, sometimes just potential good, that was in him. Throughout Queer and Pleasant there is never a sense of judging him, just telling the truth about who he was and what growing up as a son who was really a daughter was like in his household. She doesn’t hide his attitudes and flaws; she accepts that this was who he was without sugar-coating, just truth. She does the same when talking about L. Ron Hubbard and life in the Church of Scientology. She lays the truth about Hubbard before you. She doesn’t demonise him, he does that well enough on his own, what she does is treat “the Old Man” with the same honesty and acceptance she does her daddy. Even as she reflects on Hubbard’s death, there is compassion:

“No one’s come forward online to say they were there when the Old Man was lost, or that they held his hand and cried with him. If I’d been there, I would have.”

I don’t think I could have called up that type of compassion for a man who treated people the way Hubbard did, but Kate is a bottom, and from the bottom it is easier to see just how messed up we all are. And that’s truth.

This is the next thing you should know about Kate, she has an unwavering commitment to honesty. She tells Jessica and us at the start of Queer and Pleasant that, despite the label of suppressive person and the implication of being a spinner of lies, she will tell the truth. Even when she exaggerates or tells you how she wishes things could have happened she still relates what really happened. This is the aspect of Kate’s narrative that drew me in like a walleye on a fishing line. I spent thirty years lying to everyone by pretending to be a boy; now that I’m done playing at boy and living as girl, I don’t have time for lies. And neither does Kate. She went through a myriad of personalities and ways of living, each, she says, its own unique way of being gendered; she married and divorced three times; she did some cruel things to people who didn’t deserve it; she touched a number of people in very deep and intimate ways. She bares all this to her readers with unflinching honesty. But, like I said, this is a love letter and love is honest even when it means showing your own darkness.

Her memoirs, however, are not a Robert Lowell confessional; they do not dwell in the darkness. Like her other works, there is a wry sense of humour that infuses Queer and Pleasant. This is the last thing you need to know about Kate, she possess a levity that enables her to see the humour in the bizarre situations she’s come through. Her pop culture riffs and Doctor Who allusions make her memoirs a joy to read. How can a person who has served in the church of a mediocre science fiction writer who espoused the idea we are all thetans from the Galactic Empire who were shot out of an erupting volcano into a soul catcher and joined with cave dwellers not see the humour in life? How can a female placed in a male body by a cosmic prankster of a God not approach her story with a little self-deprecating humour and a lot of irony? For all the trauma and trials she went through Kate is still remarkably vivacious. If you need proof just consider the book’s subtitle: the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today.

Reading A Queer and Pleasant Danger was a pleasure for me. I learned more about a heroine as important to me as my Mommy and Grandma, but more important I learned lessons about compassion, love, truth, service, and humour. Thank you, Auntie Kate, for being the lovely lady you are and for sharing that with us. And I promise, I won’t take the personality test.

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My Dysphoric Life (a Caitlin on post)

20 May, 2012

Close your eyes for a moment and allow your mind to picture yourself. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

The image you see is not a memory. Nor is it an idealised version of yourself. The image is a mental understanding of your corporeality. It is a template that helps your mind interact with the physical world without having to visually monitor your actions. It can be thought of as a mental “you are here” map, that allows one to navigate their vessel of blood and bone through the rather hazardous environment we live in. This internal body template is what allows us to crack an egg without splattering it all over the counter, to pull our foot back when we step on a tack without toppling over, and to experience the physical and emotional sensations associated with sex. It is a rather nifty little trick, when it works, but what happens when it doesn’t work? What if there is a disconnect between the corporeality and the mind?

That’s when things get messy.

Imagine Lisa, an average woman with an accurate internal image. Granted, it is locked-in at twenty-five and she is pushing forty, but other than some grey hairs and a pound or two the image is as accurate as human beings can get. Until there is an accident at work and she loses her left hand at the wrist. Now there is a dramatic contrast between her corporeality and her internal image. The doctors call this phantom limb sensation. The hand is missing but the mind does not recognise its absence. The truth is her left hand is gone. The truth is her left hand is still there. The truth of its physical absence does not alter the truth of the impulses traveling between the brain and where the hand was. She will still unconsciously reach out for something, she will still shield her face or try to catch herself  with it when she stumbles, and the brain will still receive sensations from it (usually pain, tingling, or pressure). Lisa is experiencing bodily dysphoria.

Imagine Geoffrey, a twenty-three year old graduate student working an IT internship for a local law firm. On the weekends he likes to compete in body building and strongman competitions. His corporeality is a toned, muscular, five-eleven, one hundred eighty-three pound man. His internal image is locked-in at the one hundred and two pound, lightweight, weakling he was at eighteen. When he looks in the mirror he does not see the strength and redoubles his efforts at the gym. He gives up his social life and his internship to pursue more bulk, he just isn’t big enough. He pursues this goal not to get to something, but to escape something. To escape an internalised image of himself, but no amount of weight lifting will change that image. Geoffrey is experiencing bodily dysphoria.

I have always known I was female. It was not until I was four and starting kindergarten that this knowledge clashed with anything external, when I was wrongly placed in with the boys every time we divided up on gender lines. I went home and asked my parents how people could tell the difference between girls and boys and I received the standard answer regarding girl parts and boy parts. I was, also, informed that I was boy. This news crushed me. I knew I was a girl, but everyone around me believed the opposite. It was confusing and I did what every kid does with the things that make no sense: I ignored it. After all, at this point there really was no noticeable difference for me between girls and boys except hair length and clothes. I had red pants, which I knew was a girl’s colour, and foppish hair, so eventually everyone would realise their mistake and we would all move on. I continued to play house and Care Bears and Thundercats and whatever else was popular with the kids and waited for everyone else to come to their senses. An effective tactic, until I hit puberty and all the girls developed breasts and curves. All of them except me, that is. I got facial hair and a deepening voice. While the other girls were complimented on their slenderness and softness, I was made fun of for being scrawny and weak. My parents, concerned about my lack of weight and muscle, started giving me protein shakes with my meals. In less than a year, I went from a happy girl to a confused teenager who couldn’t look in the mirror or have her picture taken without having an anxiety attack. I had pulled the lever on the dysphoria bandit and it came up all sevens.

Pause a moment to consider something. In the first two cases this disconnect between mind and body is labeled bodily dysphoria. This is, also, how it is labeled in other situations (e.g. paraplegia, anorexia), but in my case it is labeled gender dysphoria. The reason? In the other cases the alternative image, the mental image, is considered viable. It is viable to be mobile, to have all your limbs, to be built like The Rock, and to be Kate Moss thin. In my case, the mental image is not considered viable. To be a gender other than the one you were designated at birth is not an option. This labeling says far more about psychiatric opinion of the trans* experience than it does about the dysphoria. Something to ponder.

During puberty, and every day afterward, I felt betrayed by my body. I hated how I looked, I hated my anatomy, I hated whatever cosmic joker had given a girl and male body. I could not look in the mirror without feeling despondent and as the changes progressed I slipped into depression. I could not tell anyone about this because I would be labeled a freak. I figured the news would kill, literally kill, my parents and my brother would be shamed and mocked because he was related to me. So my mind did the only thing it could do to protect itself: disassociate itself from my body. When I looked in the mirror it was like I was looking at a different person. Someone whose body I had to take care of until they returned with mine. As a result, physical sensation meant very little to me. Instead I received my emotional connection through words and ideas. I also became a fantasy and science fiction junkie. I would become absorbed in the stories, identifying with the female characters. It allowed me a vicarious physicality without having to associate myself with my traitorous body. I also invented stories of my own. In my stories there was always someone who was designated male at birth (DMAB) who would through magic, technology, or coercion be physically transformed to female.

Once I hit senior high school fantasy was no longer a viable escape for me. My peers had discovered sexuality and were pairing off with each other or getting off to thoughts of the other. I could not because it involved a connection to the body that I did not have. Also, dating would have been awkward. I was not interested in girls romantically. If I thought they were beautiful it was usually accompanied with a jealous longing to look like them. Neither was I interested in boys because that would have made me (according to how everyone perceived my sex) homosexual and I certainly was not gay. God forbid, I would have been royally screwed up then, a girl in a boy’s body was bad enough but to make it gay also?  So I made my first transition. Not physically, but mentally. I went from fantasising or longing for a body that matched to the first steps in making that body match. At this point I was discovering the transformative power of clothing and accessories. I purchased or asked for rings and necklaces that could be read androgynously things that would blend but still empower my femininity. This was satisfying for a while but the need to transform grew. That was when I discovered theatre. As someone involved in theatre it was okay for me to be a little off, or a touch eccentric. It gave me the opportunity to be someone else, anyone else. Even an hour and half as another person was relief. And then there was the wardrobe room. I did not need a closet that doubled as a gateway to Narnia, I just needed this one wall length closet stuffed with skirts, blouses, and accessories. I snuck in there every chance I got. At first I had to create reasons to borrow my English instructor’s keys long enough to quick unlock and prop the door or to concoct a story legitimate sounding enough to get one of the janitors to open it. I worried about this becoming suspicious and with a little patience and practice I learned how to jimmy both the theatre and wardrobe room doors. Here I could be myself, I could transform, and everything seemed to be in alignment. I would invent reasons to stay after school or tell the director I was working on sets so I could get time alone in theatre. It was my only escape from the dysphoria and without it I would not have lived to graduate.

The trouble with dysphoria is it is a hungry condition. Like Audrey II it demands to be feed and each feeding makes it a little stronger and a little bigger. But its more vile than the plant from outer space because unlike Audrey II, starving dysphoria makes it even stronger. When I reached college  it was no longer enough to see my body looking like my minds image. I needed recognition of who I was. Not the whole world, but at least one person. I dated a few girls but that never worked because they were looking for a boyfriend and I was looking to be like them. I dated a few boys but, again, they were looking for a boyfriend and I wanted to be their girlfriend. And as far as sex went, forget it! I didn’t want anyone anywhere near my genitals. There was only one girl who ever came close to having sex with me and that was because she was very tomboyish, and I still had to shower immediately after. So I did the only thing I could think of, I grew my hair, hung out primarily with other girls, and hoped I would experience gender by proxy. Every time someone “misgendered” me I thrilled.

As college came to a close, even this was not enough to ease the dysphoria. I had immersed myself in fantasy, I had transformed for myself, and I had sought recognition from others; it was time to get scientific about battling my dysphoria. My first year of college was also the year the internet entered commercialisation. So by the end of college I had enough of a grasp on how to use the internet that I could start looking for answers. Mostly what I found was “she-male” and “tranny” porn. I found the images a bizarre mix of repulsive and triggering. I wanted nothing to do with it and at the same time there was an idolising of these women brave enough to become who they were. Beyond the porn, and internet without safety filters is loaded with porn, I found a few sites that provided answers and suggestions. I learned the term transsexual, I discovered there were operations and hormone therapy available for a price (astronomical). In the year after college and my first two years of graduate school I feel victim to every charlatan and snake oil scheme the internet had to offer. I tried diets, exercises, lotions, pills, anything that would ease the constant feelings of anxiety and depression associated with the dysphoria. Nothing worked for more than a month. Finally, my dysphoria hit critical mass and I attempted to transition.

It was a failure. People were bigoted and judgmental. Basically, they assumed I had lost my mind. And somehow, I knew without even really considering it, that bringing all this home to my parents was not an option. So I stuffed it all back down but those few months were enough to drop the dysphoria back to manageable levels and I kept it there by incorporating small touches of feminine clothing into my wardrobe (a shirt or pair of shorts) and jewelry. On its own this would not have held the dysphoria in check for long, but I was also introduced to the woman I fell in love with and married. For her I could hold the dysphoria in check. For awhile I even thought I had been cured, as Boylan says in her memoirs “cured by love.” But our marriage had other problems, big ones, and we started seeing a marital therapist even before we were officially married. The diagnosis he gave me was that I was not masculine enough. That I, literally, needed to man-up if I wanted my marriage to survive. So I did. I threw myself into the men’s movement. I read books like Iron John and Wild at Heart; I attended a men’s retreat and had men’s breakfast every Saturday. I was going to ignore my internal knowledge, I was going to conquer my dysphoria, and I was going to save my marriage. Instead I became withdrawn, disassociated from my body and interactions with others, and my already dysphoricly enhanced temper Hulked out every time my presentation of masculinity was questioned or threatened. I was miserable. I started self-medicating with phytoestrogens purchased over the internet and shipped from Thailand. In my alone time, which I had a lot of, I dressed and experimented with make-up and nail polish. I did whatever I had to ease the dysphoria so it would not destroy a marriage that was already on rough ground. And then everything went splat.

I was at home, in a dress, trying to ease the dysphoria before my wife came home so that we could have a nice hour together before we went to bed. I had started taking photographs as a way of getting the recognition I craved. I never did anything with the photos I just snapped them with my digital camera and stored them in an encrypted file on my computer. The photographs downloaded and camera equipment put away, I had just settled onto the couch to relax for half an hour when the door opened. My wife had come home early. She saw me. My whole sense of self splattered across us and our marriage. The decent into divorce escalated.

A year-plus later and I am rebuilding my life. This time, I am ignoring what everyone else thinks I am and I am rebuilding it as me. I am female. I always have been, despite how my body was designated. The dysphoria I feel is still present. I still have days where I cannot look in the mirror without crying and there are still aspects of my body I regard with disgust. Due to years of testosterone damage and some abusive mistreatment of my body I will never be free of the dysphoria. But with each change I make it eases, just a little. I’m happier now than I have ever been. I hope that each year sees this happiness grow. If you are privileged with never experiencing dysphoria you are lucky person and I envy you. You are beautiful beyond what you will ever realise. And all I ask of you is that you accept who I am in my search for my beauty and that you are patient when I refuse to believe your reassurances that I am.

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Gender Dysphoria

17 December, 2011

Have you ever looked up the term gender dysphoria? Unless you have it, or are intimately connected to someone who does, I doubt it ever crossed your mind to look the term up. According to the medical and psychiatric community gender dysphoria is discontent with one’s biological sex and/or the gender one was assigned at birth. There are two major flaws with this statement resulting in the definition being such a large downplaying of the emotional chaos those diagnosed with the condition suffer it makes the degree holders look like they are purposefully ignoring the trauma of living with this condition.

The first flaw occurs with the definition’s use of the word discontent. Discontent is a dissatisfaction or restless unhappiness. This makes gender dysphoria sound like a wistful longing for what one would term better circumstances. The use of this word to describe the emotions associated with gender dysphoria is a belittling of the person who suffers it, it erases the magnitude of the condition. I do not experience a vague, discontented feeling with my physical self. I experience loathing, a raw, feral hatred of my physical self, from the size of my hands and feet to my hairline and jaw structure and, more loathed than anything, the penis and scrotum (bear in mind this is my experience with gender dysphoria and should not be considered a blanket assessment of all dysphoria, as with other conditions individuals can suffer dysphoria to lesser and greater degrees). Mere discontent cannot account for this intensity of emotion; it cannot explain why there are days, such as today, where my physical self is so loathsome to me that I cannot leave the house out of shame and disgust and the intense anxiety of having others see me. And I have felt this since the onset of puberty and the corresponding development of secondary sex characteristics. To call this discontent is a serious understatement.

This loathing of the physical is born out of a dissonance between the self-conception produced by the mind and the image reflected in the mirror. Our brains are hardwired to have a metal understanding of the self and produces a mental image of what the body looks like. To understand this, close your eyes and allow your mind to picture your body, that image is your self-conception. It is not a remembering of what you look like, but a mental construct of your physical appearance that enables you to function–to literally move in and interact with the world. None of us has a mental image that fully conforms to the actuality of our bodies, but the majority of people have an image that is close enough to the actual that there is no dissonance between the self-understanding and the actuality. I, and others who suffer gender dysphoria, do not have that genetic privilege. My self-conception is such that how I perceive myself to be and what is reflected back from the mirror are radically different. So radically different that I experience a type of self-perception dissonance. My mind cannot reconcile what it believes I look like with what it sees. On good days this only results in a disconnected, surreal (almost free-floating) feeling, as if the self and the body inhabit near-space but not a shared-space. On bad days this feeling is a near failure to recognize what I see as self, rather it is a complete other. This is dangerous. This is what leads so many gender dysphoric individuals to self-harm. The causing of pain and the letting of blood becomes a physical link that allows them to recognize their body as their body. Other times it results in self-punishing behaviors, either punishing the flesh for failing to conform properly or punishing the mind (alcohol, drugs, or beating oneself about the head) for failing to conceptualize properly. The emotional backlash can range from depression to mania to rage. Discontent is nowhere near an accurate description of these feelings.

The second fundamental flaw in this definition is the term biological sex. They use the term as though biological sex only consisted of genitals and secondary sex characteristics. The brain, however, is a biological component running a variety of physiological processes such as our senses, thoughts, and self-conceptualization. Thus, self-concept is also part of biological sex. Those who have a physical-self and self-concept free of dissonance, may not understand the important distinction between the physical and mental components. If they are aligned, it is difficult to tell that they are not the same. But for those of us who experience dissonance between them it is clear that they are different and thus should be considered separate aspects of biological sex.

I purpose gender dysphoria’s definition be altered to a dissonance between the outer, psychical manifestation of  one’s sex and the mental self-concept of one’s sex that results in a constant mental strain as the person attempts to reconcile two, or more, contradicting perceptions of self. I would even go so far as to suggest dumping the term all together in favor of a more accurate term such as biologist and trans woman Julia Serano’s Gender Dissonance.