I am almost 50 years old. I thought I had settled into myself a long time ago. Yet I find that I am now at least as insecure as I was as a teenager, if not more so. I’m going through another adolescence, zits and all. It’s as painful as the first one was.
It’s taken me a few months to formulate this clearly but I think I have it now: I’m changing my body to make it feel more natural to me. That part is easy and it feels utterly right. The hard part, the part that makes me anxious, is the social transition.The idea that suddenly I have to “be a man.” That part scares the crap out of me.
I can’t have spent 49 years as a woman and then suddenly turn into whatever it is I think that a man is. I don’t have a lifetime of male socialization behind me to support that change. Yes, I see myself in a male body and have presented, for my entire life, on the masculine side of the spectrum, but I have always claimed the privilege of femaleness. Let’s face it: When I get a flat tire, I call the Triple A. I’ve never had to prove myself in a fight, on a ball field, or with a machine. I know these are stereotypes but they capture my feeling that I lack the masculine experiences that turn boys into men. Therefore I am not a man and I never will be; it’s just too late for that. That’s my truth. I can’t speak for anyone else.
A few months ago, when I first decided to change my body, I had some unrealistic expectations about how long it would take. I thought that I could begin the process over summer break and return to teaching in the Fall looking significantly different – different enough to identify and present myself as male. I figured that between the testosterone and the top surgery, the summer break would have created enough space for me to return to campus and have people see me as male. So I went ahead and changed my pronouns and my name and started living openly as a transman.
I returned to work a few months later, still looking decidedly like a butch lesbian. I feel like a fool. If I had it to do again, I would wait to come out until my body had changed significantly enough for people to start really wondering what was going on. But alas, I changed my mind a very long time before my body was ready to follow. So here I am, looking like the masculine woman I’ve been seen as all my life and struggling desperately to present as male.
It’s a public battle. I have an audience of hundreds bearing witness to my awkwardness – my students. They see me getting used to myself, slipping up with my own pronouns, while I bumble about crafting my own modified version of male identity. They’re curious. They want a narrative, an explanation, an interview, an insight. Some of them, students of psychology, want to discuss gender dysphoria as a mental illness. Some of them, student journalists, want to write a feature about me.
I feel like a curiosity. An item of campus gossip. A role model. A hero. You name it.
I have nothing to give them. I have no answers yet, not even for myself. I only have questions. Like: Will I ever get enough facial hair to pass convincingly as a man? Like: If one day I find myself alone again, will anyone else ever love me? These things keep me awake at night.
In the meantime, my voice drops. My armpits stink. Welcome to being a dude, bro.
Rachel Dolezal DOES NOT EQUAL Caitlyn Jenner.
The discussion around Rachel Dolezal takes as its starting point the fact that she occupied a job at the NAACP that should have been filled by an African American person. Her appropriation of “blackness” is consequential only in that regard; who cares who she thinks she is? It doesn’t matter until she steps on someone else — in this case, by taking a particular job and making herself the representative of a population of which she may not be part. The question of whether or not she was qualified for the job based upon the sole requirement of her being African American is the legitimate point of concern.
What, then, is the definition of “being African American”? Most people think it’s based on skin color, an incredibly variable and superficial trait. If so, then how dark do you have to be to qualify? At precisely which point in his life did Michael Jackson stop making the cut? He got lighter; Dolezal got darker. If Jackson didn’t make himself into a Caucasian and Dolezal never actually became an African American, then skin color is clearly not the right definition.
I’m an anthropologist, so let’s talk science: From a biological point of view, “race” is a thoroughly ridiculous idea (see Podcast #13). Don’t let me confuse you; racism is as real as a fist in your face, but “race” has no genetic validity. Despite what you may have seen on Bones, there is no magic combination of genes or skeletal features that instantly reveal an individual as “black” or “white,” in part because these color categories are culturally defined: The line between them moves depending on where you live. Folks who are “black” in America are “white” in Brazil. In America, in fact, there has been so much intermixing between people that many “black” folks have “white” ancestors and there are plenty of “white” folks with “black” great-grandparents.
Being African American is probably best defined as being subjected to racism based on the assumption that you are African American. Think about it. How many “high yellow” celebrities are out there passing as “white” and experiencing no racism at all? The black community is itself conflicted about whether or not these folks are even “black.” That’s because being “black” or “African American” is about your experience, not your genes.
This being the case, the important question becomes: Did Rachel Dolezal have an African American experience of life? Did she grow up black? Does that experience inform her perspective? The obvious answer to this is no; as a light-skinned child, she was not socialized as African American. She was never a black teenager. She never faced any of the challenges that people of color face growing up in America. On these grounds alone then, she was not qualified to hold the job that she occupied.
Okay, that’s fine. There ends the criticism. Because Dolezal’s experience of herself is another matter entirely. I accept that she identifies as African American because her identity is none of my business. Her experience of herself is something I can never understand, me not being her and all.
Perhaps she began passing as African American at a point in her life significant enough to have acculturated and become, for all intents and purposes, “black.” Forgive me a terrible metaphor: Like a young American who moves to France, learns the language, and lives there for the rest of his life; he’s pretty much French. Does anybody care that he was actually born in America? Only if he runs for office.
It’s okay with me if Rachel Dolezal identifies as African American. That’s her life and her experience. What’s not okay is that the she didn’t meet the unspecified, unspoken requirement of the job: she didn’t grow up black.
Lots of people think Dolezal is a faker. A pretender. I think her identity is her own business. I also think we could spend some time questioning the job’s base requirement of her blackness to begin with, but that’s for another time.
The point I’d like to make right now is that THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BEING TRANSGENDER. Rachel Dolezal has nothing to do with Caitlyn Jenner. I call BULLSHIT! on comparing them.
Being transgender is about recognizing that your gender identity crosses the boundary between the sexes; trans literally means “across.” Trans* people see themselves as some combination of male and female because their physical bodies don’t precisely correspond to their idea of themselves. They struggle to reconcile the incongruities. It’s true that trans* people may pass as the sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth, but this is usually recognized as a matter of survival rather than choice. Trans* people almost always grow up trans*.
Rachel Dolezal didn’t grow up transracial. She was a white child who claimed, as an adult, that she had always been black. That’s called lying.
Can a person even be transracial? I don’t know. Maybe. Perhaps we should ask Eminem or Marcus Samuelsson? I bet their answers would be interesting. But the idea that Rachel Donezal’s lies can call transgender identity into question is offensive and ignorant.
Caitlyn Jenner told us who she is with courageous honesty. Rachel Dolezal lied her way into a job. How dare you use her to undermine trans* identity!
I was riding in the car the other day with my wife and two other women. Stuck in slowly moving traffic, they noticed that the man in the car next to us was texting. Disgusted, my wife yelled out her window to him, “Put the phone down!” My immediate reaction was to tell her to be quiet. “If he gets pissed off,” I said, “who do you think he’s going to take it out on? The three women, or the dude in the car?” Silence descended.
I sat back, knowing that I’d overreacted. Still, the incident shocked me into the realization that women get away with a lot simply because they’re women. A woman can say anything she wants to a man and he will never be justified in striking her. Set up the same scenario between two men and it will likely come to blows.
If my wife and are are walking down the street hand-in-hand and she decides to say something aggressive to a strange man, his reaction will depend in part on whether he thinks I’m a man or a second woman. A man with any sense of decency at all will leave two women alone, but if he reads me as a guy, then I’m fair game. This means that the nasty comments my wife, my friends, and I have heretofore delivered to men without consequence will now put me at risk of physical violence.
I’d better take a self-defense class.
My “top surgery” (read: double mastectomy) is in 9 days. My wife, my friends and I, all women aside from – very recently – me, are all sitting around the pool, making plans. The group decides on an outing just a couple of days after my surgery, while I’m still certain to be homebound and some degree of helpless. “Wait a minute,” I say, “that’s right after my surgery. I need someone to keep me company.”
The athletic one among us stares me coldly in the eye and tells me, “Come on, you can handle it. You’re a man now. Deal with it.”
I know she’s (half) joking but it stings, nonetheless. So this is the way it is now? You see me as a man (THANK YOU!) so you’re going to lump me in with all of the other men in your life and however you feel about them. This is not a good feeling. Expectations are rising up like so many pointless, snarky challenges.
As a lesbian, I thought I knew women. Ironic.
Begin at the beginning:
Heartbeat thump. Warm. Enveloped.
Then into bright light, and cold air, and rushing sound.
Hard plastic. Soft cotton.
I’m in my body. I feel it.
My legs and my arms, my torso and my genitals; this is me.
I am naked. I am strong. I am endless.
Then come the expectations:
Pinks and blues. Rules. Confinement.
And I am foreign to myself. My mother’s child.
Hard inside. Soft outside.
I leave my body. I tell it:
You keep me alive; expect me to ignore you now. You’re not me.
I am naked. I am wrong. I am monstrous.
I am not my encasement.
Flesh and bone? Stone. Fossilized.
This is the cage and the condition of my life.
Hard border: Head/Body.
I am ambitious. I play it:
I’m really a guy inside this female body, right? This is me.
I don’t say it, but it’s heard. Somehow it works.
There are no limitations.
Gender roles? No. Not really.
The modern era lets me do just as I wish.
Hard headed, soft hearted.
I move through phases. I try on:
The hard rocking chick who’ll fuck you and ignore you, twice. But it’s not me.
I find women and it clicks; I must be gay.
I give up playing music.
Tits and ass were essential.
I cut my hair and throw away my makeup kit.
Hard choices; soft landing.
I find a partner. I believe:
We’ve fallen in love and it will last until I die. Then she cheats.
Seems I’m not quite butch enough, ironically.
I get an education:
Everyone wants a penis.
Read de Beauvoir and turn into a feminist.
I find a partner. I believe:
I want to be loved and she is there to play the part. It won’t last.
Eight years in, we burst apart explosively.
I move to California.
Nothing left to hold onto.
One resume and suddenly I’m teaching class.
Hard binders. Paper stacks.
I meet my wife and I believe:
My luck has kicked in and I have settled into life. At last love.
Fourteen years go by before it gets to me.
The momentary traumas:
Lavatories, fitting rooms.
They double check the posted sign when they see me.
Hard staring. Paper towels.
I hate my body more and more.
Now I’m growing old and I am running out of time. My fate’s sealed.
There’s no reason to go on repeatedly.
I’ve loved my way through living.
Done the best that I could do.
I’ve been the person I could be inside this shell.
(Hard pressing, paper thin.)
I face my body. I tell it:
I’ve had a good life and I am finished with you now. I can’t eat.
I am ugly. I am wrong. I am in pain.
I want it to be over.
Damn this constant social stress.
Just fuck the world and fuck this life because I’m done.
Hard pressure from within.
I feel my body. It tells me:
I’m saving your life. You need to get up off your ass. Keep breathing.
Tell the world it’s time for you to be yourself.
The conversation started.
So my body told my mind:
You know I really am a prison for your soul.
Hard choices make it right.
You have the power. You can change.
No need to give up. There is a medical solution. Move forward.
You’re not dying; you’re becoming who you are.
I’ve always been this person.
Fully male identified.
I’ve worn a coat of femininity, just so.
Hard layers of soft paint.
And now I get to strip it off.
It didn’t work well. Almost nobody ever saw it. Extra weight.
Nearly killed me; makes good sense to let it go.
My body gave permission.
Told me fully, through my gut:
The mutilation that you think is horrible?
Hard scars of your healing.
I have a lifetime left to live.
The power is there. There is a way to fix the problem. Why suffer?
Let’s bring Lucas to the surface for a breath.
My 1999 Master’s thesis in cultural anthropology was called Gender Pretenders: A Drag King Ethnography. Focused on a set of women performing in drag as men in NYC, it explored the idea of gender as a set of signs, rather than a fact of biology. My recent personal website update caused me to go back and look at the work again, 16 years later; the first paragraph rang like a bell in my head:
I have never taken gender for granted. As a very young girl, I was convinced that I’d grow up to be a big, strong man; needless to say I was somewhat disappointed when puberty hit and made it quite clear that was not going to happen. As a short-haired, overweight tomboy, I grew used to adults calling me “son” and, “young man,” and as a masculine woman have come to expect the occasional “sir.” But I am not transgendered; I’ve grown to love being a woman, to appreciate my female body, and to value my identity as a lesbian. I do not feel”like a man” and do not want to be one; still, I am often accused of harboring such a desire. I am told that I dress like a man, I talk like a man, and I look like a man; surely I must want to be a man?
I’ve obviously been thinking about my own gender for a long time. What stands out here is the description of my childhood, accurate now as it was then. It’s the first thing I tell people when explaining my recent decision to transition. What follows, however, is a strong statement of denial. I said four things which now require reconsideration:
“I am not transgendered” – The more honest statement at the time would have been, “I don’t want to be transgendered.” I didn’t know for sure that I wasn’t, but I did harbor a suspicion. Why else was I focusing on gender in my graduate studies?
“I’ve grown to love being a woman” – This was and is still true. I believe that women have a more flexible range of cultural expression (for example, in terms of dress) than men do; women are also encouraged to have and communicate emotions more so than men. This worried me until I realized that it’s okay to be an expressive man. And I admit that I grew, over the years, to believe in a sort of female superiority — in a “if women ruled the world, then there wouldn’t be any wars” kind of way.
“…to appreciate my female body” – This is a flat-out lie. I’ve never appreciated anything about my body below my neck. I’ve never really been in my body to begin with. I wrote the statement because I knew it was the most important thing to say if I were to convincingly deny that I was transgendered.
“…to value my identity as a lesbian” – This was and is still true. It’s one of the things I’ll be giving up in my transition. This troubled me for a while until I realized (a) I’m still queer and (b) I’m still a feminist.
There are straight men who claim they are “really just a lesbian in a man’s body.” I will be.
I have repaired my formerly fractured vision of myself and unified my various personae into one individual: LW Hasten. The general idea can be found here: lwhasten.com