out of the box

A while back I wrote a post or two about embracing life as a “ze” or “they” or, you know, “person” instead of a “she.” One of my major fears about doing this has to do with relinquishing the privilege of legibility out and about in public, part of the package of privilege that comes with being cisgender.

This weekend I had a most amazing experience. I was at a big summer event, wearing shorts and a tank top, and I felt the most comfortable I may have ever felt with my appearance. There I was with short hair, leg hair visible in boyish shorts, armpit hair not only visible but much longer than I actually like to keep it, and more comfortable than usual. It was if all of a sudden I just stepped over a line and I was no longer trying to be a woman.

The step itself was minute. It was tiny. I’ve been to the same event with the same hairy legs and armpits lots of times. It’s part of the summer, and along with that comes my discomfort with my body and my choices not to conform. People sometimes stare and when they don’t I spend most of my time worrying that they will. I’m always afraid some strange man is going to start yelling derogatory things at me about my “gross” legs. I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I’ll respond and almost daring people to actually say something. Every time someone whispers around me I think it must be about me. And the truth is, up until now, I’ve also felt that my legs are kind of gross. But I don’t shave, cause I also think that shaving makes my legs look pre-pubescent, which is grosser. It’s been over a decade since the last time I shaved and still I don’t actually like the look of my hairy legs in a nice dress.

But this time, something was different. We walked up to stand in line at the entrance, and as I looked around at all the things women around me were wearing, I felt calm, detached, and most of all, apart. I didn’t feel like I was in a struggle with those women over how women should dress or look, trying to make room for myself. I just thought “wow, women do really weird things. I’m glad I don’t have to wear paint all over my face in the sweaty hot or wear shorts that are going to ride up on me every time I sit down.” Later in the day I caught a pre-teen girl staring at my legs (this is the group I actually do catch staring with some frequency). For the first time ever, I enacted my plan for dealing with staring. I stuck my tongue out at her. And I didn’t feel angry or embarrassed by her stare. Instead, I thought “Good. Maybe she’ll know there are way more possibilities than she sees on a daily basis as she grows up.”

The thing is, the only step I’ve really taken is opening myself up to the possibility of being seen by strangers and friends as genderqueer and writing about that here. I haven’t asked anyone not to call me she, or changed my name, or even really changed my appearance. But I think I have decided that I would be prouder of myself if people cease to identify me easily and consistently as a woman. And maybe that’s where the line is. Maybe with that decision in and of itself, I stepped over the line and out of the box marked woman.

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yes/no/maybe so

Last year when Potato had the idea for this blog it immediately took off and my friends and I began expressing some feelings we hadn’t quite been able to discuss directly with each other before. As she says, this is equal parts scary and exciting. My friends are taking risks here; emotionally and professionally and maybe even intellectually. I owe it to my friends of color (maybe) to bare myself and my own painful experiences and take the same risks that racist (or gendered racist) reality requires of them on a daily basis, albeit in different arenas. I never know when I’ve said too much or too little but here goes my best attempt to be brave:

This year I started wondering if I wanted to live my life as a truly genderqueer/trans* person.

This is not a Caitlyn Jenner kind of revelation although maybe in some ways it is.

Because first of all, what does it mean to be “truly” trans*?

Let me back up a mile or two. Transgender is part of a constellation of terms having to do with gender and sexuality that are, at this point, growing exponentially every year. It represents an evolution in terminology from the earlier cross-dresser, transsexual, and (often but not always pejorative) tranny. The simplest definition of transgender is someone who identifies with a gender or sex other than the sex identified for them at birth. Most commonly transgender is used as a modifier, as in “trans man” (a person now living as a man who was labeled a girl when he was born) or “trans woman.”

In contrast, cisgender is meant to identify the privilege associated with identifying with the biological sex on your original birth certificate. In other words, “cis” is the privilege of not worrying about what pronouns someone will choose for you when they meet you, whether you will be kicked out of the public bathroom you want to use, receiving appropriate medical care without argument about your sex, or otherwise suffering from the general problem of not fitting in with a binary system of gender. Astute readers will at this point recall my post from two weeks ago about being identified as a boy.

Last summer I attended a conference where Wendy Chapkis asked “cisgender/transgender: am I that name?” Chapkis is a self-identified woman, but she is hirsute. She spoke from her experience as a woman who is, in her words, “consistently misgendered in public” because of her mustache. As a person who did not make an effort to change her body to better conform with a binary notion of gender, she said that she had for a time identified herself as transgendered. Before transgender had come to so consistently refer to, as one audience member put it, ‘a path to a gender’ rather than a gender in and of itself. In other words, today transgender tends to mean that one is either a transman or a transwoman but it is not an identity in itself. But Chapkis, born a woman and woman-identified, is clearly not a transwoman (read more on her life here). The problem, Chapkis identified, is that as a woman with a visible mustache, Chapkis is a gender non-conformist and “cisgender” does not seem appropriate either.

Chapkis’ talk hit a nerve and seems to point to some thorny tensions in contemporary feminist ideas about gender. At one point, trans* meant transgressing gender, transcending gender, or perhaps even transversing gender. The gender outlaws, as Kate Bornstein says (more on her in a later post). Now trans is one half of a suspiciously straight binary: a person is either trans or cis, with little room for those in between.

Let me be clear: no one here is arguing that the powerful out and proud folks in the burgeoning transgender movement are traitors to the feminist cause or do not know what they are talking about in terms of their own identity. I am in no way qualified to speculate or opine on why many, many people find it meaningful to transition fully from one sex to another and I do not wish to invalidate that very real experience, nor is the (possible) lack of room for those in-between the fault of those on the marked half of the binary. The binary is important because it allows us to describe an unmarked privilege. Like Chapkis, I am simply thinking through where I belong and failing to find a side that really fits. Unlike Chapkis, I am almost never misgendered and therefore I experience a heap of cis privilege (never kicked out of the bathroom, never the cause of medical confusion, only rarely some stares). Unlike other ciswomen, however, it seems I experience an explicit consciousness about trying to make ciswoman fit as an identity. (At least I think that sets me apart from ciswomen- TBEL- to be explored later.)