Posts Tagged ‘Kate Bornstein’

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Frozen’s Elsa as Trans Woman Representation

22 January, 2014

Disclaimer: This is an expository piece on Disney’s Frozen and the connection I, a trans woman, felt with Elsa. Though much has been written about the racial representation and choices made by the Disney Company in regards to Frozen, this essay will not be addressing that topic.

Trigger Warnings: Transphobia, Internalised Transphobia, Transmisogyny, Abuse

Spoiler Warning: Frozen

In Disney’s Frozen, a film loosely based off Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Snow Queen,” Elsa conceals what she believes to be a terrible and dangerous truth about herself. She understands, at an early age, that she is different from others, but in the exuberance and open-heartedness of youth, that difference is neutral, lending her neither a special place nor a villainous one. That changes while she is playing with her younger sister Anna when she accidentally hits her sister with a magic ice shard that threatens her life. With the help of a rock troll Anna is spared, but Elsa is told that her powers are dangerous and expressing them will put others, most especially her sister, in jeopardy. She is taught to conceal her powers and stuff her emotions, which can trigger them, down so deep she becomes numb to them. “Conceal; don’t feel” is her mantra and she becomes a girl numbed by cold isolation and closed doors. The Disney Wiki describes Elsa as “traumatized” by these early experiences and states “Elsa forcibly spent the rest of her life distanced from the kingdom, including Anna, trying to keep her powers from growing out of control and harming those she cares about.” And this fear, according to director Jennifer Lee, is what drives Elsa.[1]

Having grown up as a trans girl in hiding, I found myself relating to Elsa’s story. I have always understood myself to be female. Like Elsa, I did not think of who I was as different or unusual, until outside events forced me to confront how the rest of the world saw me. In the early eighties I sat with other girls my age on a ratty, beige, shag carpet stained mud brown by the tromp of little feet shod in velcro Stride Rites, Winnie-the-Pooh rain galoshes, faux-leather Mary Janes, and pointy-toed cowboy boots. The teacher readied us for lunch by dividing us into two lines, each to march on opposite sides of the hallway, one of girls and one of boys. I lined up with the other girls. The teacher stood in front of the closed door and frowned at the class. “I won’t open the door until everyone is where they belong,” she said. She waited. It took a minute before I felt the eleven pairs of kindergarten eyes staring at me as though I were the village idiot. The teacher walked between the two lines, straddling that divide between little girl and little boy that only adults dared to stand above and stopped in front of me. “You are in the wrong line.” Panic welled up from my four year-old chest into my throat, where it squeezed my voice box shut. It was my first experience with a crippling anxiety that would numb my body and lead to the concealment of my feelings and who I was. Several decades later, I would learn terms like gender anxiety and gender dysphoria, but growing up I could only describe it as being frozen inside myself.

A few years later, I sat on the edge of the flower garden that ran along the side of my grandparent’s stuccoed duplex. The bruises where my cousin and a neighbour kid had beaten me up already appearing as dark splotches on my arms and chest. The beating was a punishment for having caught me playing house with the girls who lived down the street; I was the mother. These young teenage boys who considered themselves strapping examples of manhood stood over me scowling and said my kid brother would be really “fucked up” if I didn’t learn to behave like a boy and not a girl and my father would hate me for being a sissy. The lesson was clear. Conceal who you are so you don’t hurt your family; don’t feel anything or you will expose yourself and hurt the ones you love. It was a hot a summer day and my white t-shirt was plastered to my bruised and aching chest by sweat, but it could have been winter because I was ice inside. Like Elsa, I was numb to everything except the anxiety and fear of what would happen to my family if I didn’t hide who I was. “Conceal; don’t feel” was my mantra.

For Elsa, the conflict between who she is and who others believe her to be comes to a head at her coronation and she has what trans activist and gender theorist Kate Bornstein calls a splatter moment,[2] when two or more identities come in conflict and the result is a terrific splatter. The stress of keeping her powers secret begins to crack and seep through the image of calm, component queen that she is portraying. She begins to freeze the scepter and globus cruciger at the cathedral. At the coronation ball a confrontation with her sister results in such intense anxiety and fear that shards of ice rise from the ballroom floor and cut her off from everyone. Her secret is out and Elsa has to deal with the consequences of a world that knows who she truly is. The conflict drives Elsa to flea Arrendale and sets off a winter storm that freezes the town and harbour. Splatter.

Elsa terrified of who she is.[3]

Elsa’s powers manifest.[4]

This is the coming out moment; where who you are and who you are pretending to be can no longer exist in the same space and everything is forced to the surface. I had two major splatter moments and, like Elsa, what set them off was a reality I could no longer suppress. The need to be who I was grew inside me, just as Elsa’s powers grew stronger over time. It seeped out of me in moments when the dysphoria was too intense to handle. Little things like putting on one of my mother’s dresses or some of her makeup when no one was home. Like young Elsa accidentally freezing her window sill, my reactions after these “slips” were fear of and disgust with myself. The older I got the stronger my need to be myself became, until it took tremendous effort and isolation to keep it contained, but it still leaked out until I was caught by my wife and family and who I was created a wall between us and the resulting storm that shook my family and friends. Most of them reacted like the Duke of Weselton did to Elsa, they referred to me as a “monster” and demanded that my transition be “put to an end.”

Elsa isolates herself in the mountains and sings “Let It Go,” which deeply resonated with my coming out process. As she widens the distance between herself and Arrendale she says, “The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside. Couldn’t keep it in, heaven knows I tried. Don’t let them in. Don’t let them see. Be the good girl you always have to be.” This is what it feels like to deny and burry who you are. I knew I had to do it but it was so difficult to wear the costume of the perfect little boy, the perfect man, that everyone needed me to be; to keep them outside and not knowing who I was truly was. It created an intense sense of loss and isolation and when the secret was finally out I was scared and relieved that I could finally let it all go. Elsa sings, “Don’t let them know. Well know they know! Let it go! Let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore!” She and I both recognise the freedom that our splatter has given us but also the price that this freedom bares. She continues “Let it go! Let it go! Turn away and slam the door! I don’t care what they’re going to say. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway.” She sees the cost of being herself as complete isolation. As character design supervisor Bill Schwab said, “She’s finally free–even if she is all alone.”[5] But then, she has always been alone, so if the cost of freedom is isolation, it is a cost she can bare. The line “The cold never bothered me anyway” is perhaps more accurately captured by the French translation of the song, “le froid est pour moi la prix de la liberté” which means “the cold is for me the price of liberty.”[6] She’s willing to pay the price of isolation for her liberty. And as I watched friends and family fall away, I realised they never knew who I was to begin with and that even while they were around I was intensely alone. The isolation that my transition created was an acceptable price because unlike my isolation before, I was now free to be myself.

For a time Elsa believes she is a monster. The idea is reinforced in her by the news she has cursed Arrendale with a winter storm and injuring her sister with her powers. She sinks deeper into isolation and into depression (her physical environment, created by her powers becomes darker and heavy with ice shards). Then Hans and soldiers from Arrendale attack the palace with the intention of killing Elsa. She is forced to defend her herself proving, in the words of Hans, that she is the monster they think she is. This is the insanity of her situation. She is attacked in her home and defending herself, fighting back against those who would kill her, but she is seen as a monster and her attackers as innocent and justified in their reactions.

Elsa’s environment darkens with her depression.[7]

Provoked by Hans and the soldiers, Elas defends herself.[8]

This is what happens to trans women across the world. This is what happened to CeCe McDonald. This is what happened to me. I have been assaulted and keep a bat by my door in case the people who did it come back; I have had my home vandalised, with the word “TRANNY” scrawled across my door; I have been verbally harassed and stalked on the street, in stores, and at my place of employment; I have been sent death threats. All because of the storm of discomfort just seeing me creates within them. I have filed reports with police and human resources and building security and every time I am told there is nothing they can do and, more egregiously, that being who I am, I bring it on myself.

Elsa moves through the pain and loss in her life and her story has a happy ending, part of which is achieved by her realisation that love is the emotion that allows her to control and use her powers. She moves past her fears and finds a way to incorporate her powers into who she is; they are a part of her but they do not define her. My story, I hope, is far from over, but like Elsa, I have learned that love and compassion for those around me opens the doors for my own happiness. I am not always happy nor am I always the person I aspire to be, but the love that being myself has allowed me to find has opened the door to happiness. It has allowed me to develop friendships I could never have had before and it has opened me to receive the love of a woman who I have been blessed with the chance of sharing my life with.

It may seem odd that a children’s movie about two princesses loosely based on a short story written nearly 170 years ago should speak so intimately to my heart and experiences. And that the deuteragonist of this animation should unintentionally serve as a positive form of trans representation demonstrating how stories can be told that reflect the lived realities of minoritised groups should put poorly written, intentionally representative films such as TransAmerica and Dallas Buyers Club to shame. Trans lives are not difficult to represent and give honour to, you just have to understand that people are people and we all have the same fears and aspirations.

UPDATE: for further reading on this, check out Aoife’s piece discussing the association of trans experience with Elsa’s and look at the Japanese translation of “Let It Go.”  Elsa and Trans Iconography: The Snow Queen’s Gloves Come Off

[1] “Elsa the Snow Queen – Disney Wiki.” 2012. 22 Jan. 2014 <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Elsa_the_Snow_Queen>

[2] Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to Become a Real Man, a Real Woman, the Real You, or Something Else Entirely. Routledge. 1998. <http://books.google.com/books/about/My_Gender_Workbook.html?id=NjH32xMTu7kC>

[3] http://static4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140112132348/disney/images/c/c5/Young_Elsa_afraid.png

[4] http://static2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131029223116/disney/images/f/f6/Fullscreen_capture_10282013_71432_PM.bmp.jpg

[5] “Elsa the Snow Queen – Disney Wiki.” 2012. 22 Jan. 2014 <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Elsa_the_Snow_Queen>

[6] “Let it Go – Disney Wiki – Wikia.com.” 2013. 22 Jan. 2014 <http://disney.wikia.com/wiki/Let_it_Go>

[7] http://static1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131004094510/disney/images/2/2d/Movie_Screenshots_47.jpg

[8] http://static4.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131222033739/disney/images/8/8a/Elsa%2C_Frozen.png.jpg

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Gender as Personality; Gender as Cultural Perception

19 June, 2012

I have been wondering for a little while (read: thirty plus years) what gender is, how one becomes gendered,whether gender is a social construct or an aspect of physiology, and how someone who is transgressively gendered can move through and interact with a traditionally (perhaps coercively) gendered world?

Part of the difficulty in addressing these questions and with talking about gender is a lack of common language. I think those who are traditionally gendered do not spend much time contemplating their genderedness. Like having two excellent eyes or ten flexing fingers, being traditionally gendered is taken for granted. When you are not traditionally gendered, however, you spend every moment of every day thinking about gender, not just your gender, but everyone’s.

“I wish I could stop thinking about my gender.”
—TotallyAmelia via Tumblr

I am able to remember a time in my life where I was not concerned with this thing called gender, I was four. The idea of gender had not been introduced to me yet. I simply knew my personality and that was all I needed to know. Honestly, I think that is all any of us needs to know. This raises another batch of questions for me. Why do we not interact with others based on their personalities? We do we feel the need to know a person’s gender? How are we determining their gender? Why do we try so hard to determine the gender of androgynous people or, worse, disbelieve those whose identified gender does not match what we perceive it as?

I have come to see gender not as a letter on a driver’s license or even a word on a birth certificate but as a multifaceted spectrum that incorporates physiological and cultural components. The arguments that it is merely a biological classification or that it is strictly a set of cultural norms fail to capture the complexity of the concept. Let’s be honest, if it were as simple as what parts you are born with or which conventions you follow, would I and so many others like me have spent so much of our lives obsessing over our gender, where it came from, and why it doesn’t seem to align with what society expects?

I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details.”
Ursula K. Le Guin,
The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

Gender is a way of thinking about one’s own personality and the personalities of those one interacts with and it satisfies the cultural need to classify those personalities into tidy little packages. It is a philosophy designed to bring order to our world, but like all philosophies it mutates into rigid dogma in the hands of those attempting to maintain power and those who are afraid of anything outside of their individual experience.

Gender as individual personality is, perhaps, the easiest concept for a transgressively gendered person to understand and the hardest for traditionally gendered people to understand. When your personality runs fairly close to what society expects of you in your role as woman, man, girl, or boy, it does not occur to you that the personality you have is expresses your gender, that it is a method of categorising you with like personalities. Instead, the traditionally gendered see gender categories as being the domain of biology, in particular genitals and secondary sex characteristics. But gender is far more complex than that. When I was four and in kindergarten I got a damaging lesson in personality as gender.

It was a week or so into the first quarter of kindergarten and the children were just getting used to each other. Small groups of friends were forming and my instructor must have decided that not all of those groups were appropriately holding up the gender classification system. ‘Today,’ she said (or said something very much like,) ‘we are going to be in groups according to if we are boys or girls.’ We were all fine with this; after all weren’t we already with those like us? ‘Girls on this side and boys on that side.’ I had not really thought about whether I was a girl or a boy, but I knew I liked what the kids on the girls’ side liked and I played with them. The kids on the boys’ side were different from me. They played different games, they were louder, they were rougher (more aggressive), and I did not understand them or why they acted the way they did. Based on the logic of personality and perception I clearly belonged on the girls’ side and moved to join them.

‘Where are you going?’ the teacher asked me. I’m a girl, I told her. And she smiled at me. It was a smile that I would grow too familiar with. It lacked warmth or humour; it was reserved and hid her true emotions, a lot of disapproval and a little disgust. It was a frightening smile that told me not to question anything she said next, not to ever say what I had said again, and, more than anything else, that smile told me to never, ever reveal who I was (what I was) to anyone, ever. ‘No,’ she said. ‘You are boy and belong with the boys. Go to the boy side.’ I did not know what would happen if I didn’t do as she said, and that smile told me I did not want to find out. I shut my moth, crammed my personality into a deep dark corner, and joined the boys. I stayed there for thirty years.

And for thirty years I questioned my personality, I questioned how I was gendered and why my feminine personality did not align with what society classified me as. It never occurred to me to reverse the question, why did society believe I was male in spite of my evidence to the contrary? Everyone from school, to parents, to the mainstream media, to erotic fiction and porn confirmed that body trumped personality, so, clearly, I was broken mentally. I was a freak. And I knew I was freak because my personality was female.

“She gives me that look. And I know I’ll have to pretend to be a little boy from then on.”
Kate Bornstein,
Hidden: A Gender

Far easier for traditionally gendered people to understand is how other people’s personalities reflect their gender. Their personalities allow us to place individuals in the proper gender categories: girl, boy, straight woman, straight man, gay man, lesbian. Determining someone else’s gender category is more difficult than determining our own. For ourselves we ask one question: do I have a penis? If I have a penis then I am a member of the dominate gender, man. If I do not have a penis (because this is a phallocentric culture where a person cannot even use the word vagina in mainstream politics without drawing harsh rebuke), then I am not a man, but a member of the subordinate gender, woman. But with others the odds of our seeing their genitals to determine their gender are quite slim, so we find other ways. Of primary importance are secondary sex characteristics, such as facial hair, voice, and breasts. Of almost equal importance are behavioural cues, or personality. The way a person moves, speaks, and takes up space. What a person enjoys doing, the type of career they pursued, how they pursued it, the kinds of people they hang around. All of these are aspects of personality. As a society we default everyone to a male gender and then change that perception based on how the person’s looks and personality align with it.

According to research done by Kessler and McKenna it takes four female cues to outweigh one male cue. That’s how phallocentric our culture is and why women get sirred far more often than men get ma’amed.

Because our society cannot abide ambiguity we have created this nifty little classification system called gender to tell us who is what and, once we know what they are, how much of our respect they deserve. That is the ultimate purpose of the gender classification system. It is more than just the need for tidy little categories. It is what those categories help us determine, the thing we are most desperate to know, who is above who on the hierarchy. This is why transsexuals and other transgressively gendered people are such a threat to the gender classification system. They are jumping gender categories and changing the amount of power and respect they are entitled to, thus exposing the ridiculousness of the system. My personality is little altered from when I was socially male to my being socially female, but I receive less respect, my opinions are devalued, and I make less money (despite doing the same job). Conversely, I know some female to male transsexuals who have stepped not just into a different socially perceived gender but also more respect, more opportunities, and higher wages. Their personalities have not changed either. Our actual genders have remained consistent, but our perceived genders have changed and we suffer the penalties or reap the benefits according to our new position. Personality as gender exposes cultural perception as gender for the misogynistic system it is.

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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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Regeneratio et Politica

5 November, 2011

The prevailing theory on the Doctor’s regeneration and personality states the emotions, situations, and general state of being the Doctor is in just before regeneration dictate the resulting personality of the next regeneration. This theory, the idea that we are the sum of our experiences, is one of insight and verisimilitude exposing the inner workings of the world. I have noted this in my regeneration from A to River. There are so many elements of my personality shaped by my situation as I began regeneration. From my bleak outlook on the possibility of being loved (my divorce) to the Buddhist like calm of River (the inner peace found in acknowledging who I am publicly) to the political activism that drives me (resultant of my work place and colleagues). Of these elements, it is the last that is so telling to the idea of situational personality.

As I began the regeneration process and began my (forced) public deceleration of intent, I was approached privately by a friend who—though I believe him to have been well meaning—said things I found more painful and heart wrenching than the divorce from my wife or the shunning by my extended family. He said that I was simply “[River] in a wig” and that he could accept my regeneration provided I did not “make it political.” How this came across to me was he would never see me as anything other than a fraud and that if I went down this path I would have no right to expect acceptance or fair treatment by society. It came across as, I will tolerate this choice but it is wrong and you are wrong to be open about it. That is, a denial of the right to self-determination.

The person of whom I speak is a good man, but he is one who is a possessor of power and privilege (as defined by Kate Bornstein and the Power Pyramid). He falls victim to the same blindness that all individuals in this position incarnate: an inability to recognize their own position and how different and biased it is from the majority of human doings. I am, however, understanding and compassionate toward this state of politica caecitas because I used to be a sufferer of the condition. It took a Parkinson’s diagnosis and regenerating to shake me violently enough to knock the blinders off. We cannot blame the privileged for their blindness to their own privilege; it is a regrettable but natural state.

Despite how forgivable his offense may be, it became a defining moment in my regenerative process. It helped open my eyes to the inherent bias in the American culture. The idea that outlaws and rebels, speakers for those with no voice, progenitors of change and revolution, protestors for equality and representation, are tolerable only in small disenfranchised doses is a linchpin holding the control of those in power in place.

The very act of regenerating made me a threat to the comfortable universe he lived in. But how? Simple. I represent, at my core, not just an alternative lifestyle, but the idea of tolerance for and acceptance of things his political and religious institution condemns. In most cases he would ignore this existence or even condemn it, but he could not with me. I was within his sphere of influence. He knew me, respected me, and believed in my basic decency and social acceptability. The moment I began regeneration I created a violently opposing dichotomy for him. Here is a person that embodies the more noble aspects of his private philosophy that simultaneously embodies the unacceptable, morally questionable, and sinful. This left him with three possible resolutions to this conflict:

  • ignore the positive qualities
  • ignore the negative qualities
  • redefine his personal schemata

To his credit he was not someone who could do the first, but engaging the third is such a huge undertaking it is not surprising that only the most committed or the most desperate are capable of it. This left him only one option: to ignore the aspects of who I am that are in direct conflict with his perception of me as a good human being. He had to ask me not to display these aspects in order to maintain the delicate mental and moral equilibrium his mind had created.

This also meant that he could not acknowledge my position to influence or sway others to the type of tolerant and accepting thinking that the opposing dichotomy and my position of instructor gave me. Unable to ignore the situation’s reality, he gave me a polite ultimatum: either be quiet about this and remain friends or be public (political) and be cut off. It was the only course a rational and thinking member of the powered and privileged could take. And, predictably, since transferring to a new teaching site, I have not heard from him.

Nor have I been capable of contacting him. Why not? Because the forced choice of being quietly myself or openly, actively, myself became a defining moment in my regenerative process. I was malleable at this point, subject to influence in a number of directions. This private conversation and subtle ultimatum pushed me in the direction of activist. I was so offended by the command’s audacity (as it was not phrased as either a request or a stance for consideration, but as an imperative declaration, “don’t make this political”) that I veered in the opposite direction. It is basic physics, sweetie, every action (the command against the political) results in a reaction opposite of and equal in strength to the original action (River becomes a political activist).

I know that I would have been aware of the political dimension of my existence even without this conversation. The degree of awareness and participation, however, would have been reduced. I was not one who paid attention to politics before regenerating. As a member of the powered and privileged I did not need to be, my position was secure. As a new member of the disenfranchised I could have focused only on securing the limited power and position my new life afforded me, a good white woman. But I was now aware of the bias and bigotry directed at those who make-up the bottom of the Power Pyramid. I was aware, I was emotionally charged, and I was malleable. My new personality was directly shaped by my situation, emotional state, and the people around me.

Who I am is still in development but the public outlaw, the hippie professor, speaker of truth is a fundamental part of my personality. I have been shaped, however unintentionally, by my interactions with the other—those outside myself. Whether the regenerating individual is the last of the Time Lords, a MtF, or just someone growing up and growing into themselves, who they become is intimately linked to who they were, who they were with, and how they responded to the world.

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The Dangers of Being Trans-Friendly (a Caitlin On . . . post)

6 October, 2011

So, it is time for me to discuss a serious issue that I have had on my mind but did not have the guts to bring up. We are all aware being transgendered results in serious safety issues for transgendered persons. There is the very real possibilities of hate crime [which isn’t legally hate crime because it is not illegal to attack a person for their gender expression, we are the only unprotected group left in America], retribution in personal and professional lives, and a host of dangers born out of legal issues and the end-all-be-all, the genetic birth marker. ::spits on the ground:: These are all very real dangers. They are not, however, the ones on my mind tonight. What concerns me is the dangers faced by those who know me: classification by association, shunning for slumming, and flacking for backing.

[Cute names, right? I’m afraid I have to use the cute approach when addressing this subject because I feel overwhelmed when I considered it without a certain degree of levity. I’m not trying to downgrade the issue, I am just trying to cope with the danger my existence as self puts those around me in.]

Classification by Association

If we are honest with ourselves we can all find things about us that are not gender ideal. The regenerating individual is on the extreme end of a very real phenomena for every person. The prevalence of cosmetic plastic surgery, anti-aging muds and creams, diet and exercise fads, and heart-healthy Cheerios all point to a basic insecurity at the root of the American psyche. On our mad dash from the cradle to the grave each of us attempts to align ourself to the gender ideal. Or, as Kate Bornstein puts it, we are all attempting to reach the capstone on the gender pyramid. Advertisements, programing, publications, and a slew of other pop-culture sources inundate us and belittle us into believing we have not yet reached the gender ideal, but with just one more purchase, one more pill, one more diet, one more round of psychoanalysis, we can come just $19.95 closer.

Living in a society that labels our worth on how much we conform or fail to conform to the gender ideal has made us all paranoid about not living up to it. It took a bold step away from that gender ideal for me to see just how deeply entrenched the idea is. Something else I have seen is how desperately people look for those who do not conform as well as they do, because it allows them to feel better about their own status. The idea that there is someone lower on the rung than you means that you are not as bad off as it seems. There is always another rung down, another slot that you have been fortunate enough to exceed. When people spend their time looking for these nonconforming points in others it is only a matter of time before they are found–real or not.

This is hard enough for the transgendered and cis-gendered [trans means cross, cis means on the same side of] when they are alone, but the cis who spends time with trans-folk are taking on an extra risk that may lead others to question whether the friend is cis or just another tranny. When this classification by association happens all the dangers the trans person is exposed to are now the cis person’s dangers too. When I am out with female friends I worry that someone may see them as less of a woman because they are associating with me. When I am out with trans-friends I worry that my inability to successfully pass due to in-progress regeneration will out them and put them back in a danger zone they were “out” of.

Shunning for Slumming

Slumming, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, is a term first brought into the common language in London, 1884 and referred to the members of a higher social class spending time with a lower social class or participating in lower class activities for amusement. It is typically done with a sense of superiority over the class being entered by the participants, a malicious mocking of the lower class. In this case, I am not saying that cis-folk that hangout with trans-folk are slumming. [Though there are members of the cis population, particularly among the wealthy and famous patrons of the arts, who do so.] I am suggesting that cis-friends of trans-individuals can be viewed as “going slumming” by hypersensitive activists and faux-friends of the transgendered. Those who wish to be friends with trans-folk, should be aware that not all attacks are going to come from the bigots who hate transgender-ism; there are plenty of people–cis and trans alike–who are going to take offense to the cis-friend’s acceptance of their transgendered friend. I, myself, know my friends are genuine, but it can be hard to convince others. Just something those who are my friends should be aware of.

Flacking for Backing

The moral majority, the religiously fanatical, and the bigoted asshats are the ones responsible for giving flack to cis-friends of the transgendered. They will, with luck, only try to convince or sway the cis away from the corrupting influence and  inherent “evils” of friendship with a transgendered person. However, much like whites who marched alongside of blacks in the civil rights movement, the cis-friend exposes themselves to same physical dangers that their transgender-friend is exposed to. The people who jump your transgender-friend as you walk from the theater to your car are not going to say, “Hey, that person isn’t transgendered, so we should leave her/him alone.” The whites were not exempt from brutal attacks by racists, and neither are the cis.

And let us get one thing straight. This is a civil rights movement! Regardless of what others might think, regardless of what others might wish, the call for equal rights and fair treatment of the transgendered is a civil rights movement. If a person of color is denied the right to housing because of their ancestry, it is a hate crime against their civil rights. If a homosexual is beaten because of his sexual orientation, it is a hate crime against his civil rights. If a lesbian is shot at by a drunk, off-duty police officer, it is a hate crime against her civil rights. So why is denying housing to, beating, and murdering a transgendered individual seen as somehow less important? Why is it less of crime and why does the general population tend to sympathize with the perpetrator of the crime and villainize the victim? “The murdered transsexuals were most likely hookers,” I overheard a teacher say about the transwomen shot this summer. “That cop was just doin [sic] what need [sic] to be dun [sic],” posted a commenter on a washingtonpost.com article about the cop who shot at the transwomen who refused his advances.

This is clearly a civil rights issue and it is clearly dangerous for everyone involved in it whether transgendered, family, or friend.

It is this last bit that leaves me nervous and questioning. What have I exposed my family and friends to? None of them have been attacked or molested, but they have received verbal flack, been questioned, and been rebuked and shunned for their association with me. Yes, I know they are big boys and girls and the choices they make are their own, but it still worries me and knowing that they chose to be my friend will not make me feel any less guilty when someone puts them in the hospital because they were spending time with me at the wrong moment. Sometimes I wonder if those I care about would be better off not caring about me. Perhaps not better off, but certainly safer.

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Is #StayAlive ‘Nuf Said? (a Caitlin on . . . post)

18 September, 2011

[Note: I do not often tag my blog entries as I typically keep to a more intimate audience, but I felt this one needed to be more public as it concerns a topic I have seen posted cross-forum throughout the web. Transitioning, divorcing, and regenerating has made this a priority topic for me and I hope my thoughts on how to #StayAlive will help someone else]

#StayAlive

Twitter and Kate Bornstein were my introduction to this hashtag. Kate’s book, my gender workbook, was a life-vest during a time I suffered tsunami force upheaval and change. I had spent time in the hospital being weaned off doctor prescribed medication that had built up to toxic levels in my system. I spent a week on the ward and my then wife only visited me once and she brought her brother along that one time. Don’t get me wrong, the concern from him was genuine and appreciated, but with my wife only visiting once I was feeling rather abandoned and I wish she had come to see me on her own before I was released. I am still sad about this, but I have also come to terms with her reasoning. I am sure it was hard for her to see the man she married, the person who is supposed to be the strong, resilient one, brought so low by a medication that was supposed to help. I also believe that she needed the time alone to solidify what she felt she was missing or needed and to determine if it was something she could get from a married relationship. Deep rooted feelings of isolation and a fear of abandonment resurfaced and lead to a serious state of despair in which I considered the long-term effects to ending my life. With the medicinal fog clearing from my mind I began to feel again and the primary feeling was misery. I had moments of happiness but they were increasingly distant from one another and in decreasing duration.

There were still a great many moments where I was happy; the majority of these were with my wife, but they were all moments where I wasn’t at home. Part of this was when we vacationed or took a trip I was also on med-holiday, there was no point to taking the Adderall to focus if I was in a situation that did not require focus. The larger part, however, was we were out of the stress of working and living, we could relax and be ourselves again. The stress of the day-to-day and the expectations of work, friends, family, and marriage were too much for us. It smothered our relationship and, I realized, it was smothering something inside me. The chasm between being the expectation on a full-time basis and being myself when away from life pressures put my home life inside that canyon in perspective. I was miserable because I couldn’t be who I was. I was stealing moments when my wife was gone (which had become more often than not) where I could be me, but they were transitory and sporadic; they couldn’t sustain me. I needed to find away to

#StayAlive

I was seeing an analyst and a marital therapist and began discussing the problem of identity with them. I knew I had to tell my wife that I had repressed my personality and selfhood for thirty years and they were helping me prepare to tell her, but a week before I was ready to bring her to my analyst and lay my life bare before her, she discovered things on her own. The result was a meltdown between us. She was firmly against being in a married relationship with some who deviated from social acceptability. I had always felt like I was an embarrassment to her and this revelation capped those feelings. She wondered: How could she go somewhere with me? How could she visit her family with me? How could she sit in the same room alone with me? It was wrong. It was deviant. It was unacceptable. And my thoughts through this: Why doesn’t she love me? Why can’t she support me? Why doesn’t she want me to be happy again? These attitudes were knee-jerk reactions and have slowly faded over time. She sees I have more moments of peace now and that the reduction in stress has dramatically improved my health, but at that time, when combined with everything else she was feeling, who I am was a reason to end things that could be claimed as no one’s fault. Irreconcilable differences. A way out.

I share this with you because I want to make a point. When we separated we freed each other to pursue who we are and what we want. With this came a sense of selfhood, and a renewed interest in being alive. Searching for your desires and being yourself is a way to #StayAlive. But the story does not end there. This is life and happily ever after cannot be sustained for more than three hours before something creeps in and makes you question your commitment to

#StayAlive

Released from a repressive situation I could search out my true self. This is a reason to #StayAlive, but it better not be the only reason because this is not a road paved with caviar and champagne; this journey follows an overgrown deer trail through a dark and deadly wood. It is as much an end to all things as it is a beginning and, sweetie, let me be honest with you, the endings are more intense in their low, persistent aches then the beginnings are in their euphoria. Reality, the ever-present bitch, is right there waiting to sucker punch you and now that you have reclaimed some of that lost joy the blow is going to hurt that much more.

When you first make a change it is a novelty for you and those around you. But as that novelty wears off and routine sets in, you will find the overwhelming support, the sudden new-found friendships, will slowly fade back into obscurity, and formerly close friends will see you as a stranger. Life, love, and your happiness require work to keep them buoyant. There is a reason folks call it the deadman’s float. If you are not actively treading water you are not going to

#StayAlive

In my search for self I have confronted the realities of life: friends who have lives and personal quests of their own that keep them busy, discrimination and prejudice that make it difficult to carry out normal daily tasks like getting gas or going to the post office, active hate-fueled attacks and vandalism, the grind of carving out my new nook personally, professionally, economically, and legally, and my penchant for depression as I realize in spite of my drastic changes the world is still the same. Bills need to be paid, friends and family can still irritate, and the jerk behind the checkout counter is still a jerk. Only now, I have to deal with these things while coming to terms with what I have sacrificed in search of my reason to #StayAlive and the relationships and activities that used to sustain me through these blue periods are not always there any more or have changed too dramatically to ease the loneliness. There are times when I question why I chose to keep going and in those darker moments I need to call on new reasons to

#StayAlive

My friendships took the hardest hit. I lost a number of friends when I transitioned and the majority of the ones who stayed have faded into the background. There is a new sense of awkwardness around who I am. Not that the transition is a problem for them, but it is coming to terms with this new person who has appeared, a person who simultaneously is and is not who they have always known. I have found that people who I hung out with are now awkward around me and constantly monitoring themselves and me for new or unusual reactions. We are getting to know each other all over again and most of them do not like the feeling. It is a lot like shoes. The ratty, well-worn, comfort of broken in sneakers has been replaced by the pinch, squeak, and discomfort of a new pair of heels. Most people do not have the time or energy to surmount this, so they gradually fall away. They call and write less and begin rescheduling and postponing engagements. Soon several months have gone by and we have not exchanged two words despite once seeing each other on a regular basis. This is where #StayAlive becomes difficult. I feel alone, I feel down, and the people who once were close are asking: I thought this was supposed to make you happy, how can you change and feel bad? Why don’t you give up and go back to how things were, when we were all more comfortable?

To #StayAlive we need to work at maintaining old friendships or put effort into developing to new ones. If we do not, we will not make it. I have been fortunate in this regard. I have several friends that I had not seen much of due to time issues, marriage, or distance. I have been able to build these relationships into something stronger primarily because there is less history between us, so the old comfortable sneakers feeling does not become an issue. I have also been blessed with a supportive family willing to work through the discomfort of new heels in order to break our new relationship in. They are reasons to

#StayAlive

I still experience plenty of down days and mourn for what I lost, troubled by insecurities and the fears of being unloved and unloveable. This is normal human existence. You cannot be a thinking person without the requisite number if neuroses. The situation’s reality is this: the choice to #StayAlive is not a once-off decision, it is something you need to recommit to on a daily, or even an hourly, basis. It does not guarantee you happy days. It cannot mystically cure your life or your heartaches. When you are doing it right, it hurts more than the alternative, but if it did not it would not have to be something you choose. The decision is a commitment to actively maintaining the journey, it is a vow you make with yourself that you will continue in spite of the hardships you know are coming. In the face of this challenge we must remember what Joker said in Full Metal Jacket: The dead know only one thing, it is better to be alive.

#StayAlive