The Body Public

With the first appointment at the sexual health center now behind me, I find myself on the path that leads to medical transition. It’s a slow and winding path, deliberately and understandably so. But I’m on it, now. Of course this path is not a conveyor belt; on-going transition, at any stage, is elected, not enforced. But having achieved all external feminization that seems possible–to me at least, at this point–and desiring to further femme my already trans femme life, I want more. It would be false to describe my feelings towards hormones as anything other than anticipatory and excited. I can’t wait for my body to come into its own.

But with medical transition now in sight, I find myself thinking differently about my body. Heretofore, my body has been something that has been one way (masculine) and on a trajectory towards another thing (feminine). I was happy for a long time with the body I had; now I am happy moving towards the body that I want. That simple way of situating my body in relationship to time–past to present to future–is much less complicated than how I often thinking about my body now. Which is not temporal, but relational, or, how my body interacts with people. And by default, as a trans woman, my body enters some kind of relational interaction with quite nearly all people that come to view it. Because most people notice.

How my body looks, how I dress, how my brain works, and what all this means cannot be understood in a vacuum of the self. My trans-ness, aka me, can only fully be realized within the necessarily public display that is transitioning.

Judith Butler, in Precarious Life, writes:

“The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension. Constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine.”

The body, as long as it holds life, performs for the world on our behalf. And like any performer, the body belongs in part to its audience.  My bodily transition, then, takes on the weight of all my personal, and public, interactions. I’m excited for my body’s changes. But I’m also afraid for my body, in that my body is not, as Butler writes, mine alone.

And if my body is not mine alone, what happens to it is of course outside of my control.

Transition has made plain how wholly and quickly one can be rejected. It costs nothing for others (in this others is everyone: family, friends, colleagues, strangers, twitter trolls) to ignore, or scoff, of deride, or attack me for my queer externalities. To say nothing of what will come when my physical, mental, emotional self undertakes hormonal change. This experience isn’t unique; visibly queer people have always faced the judgment of every passing eye (that it’s common is not grounds for community. Rather, it means that too much of the world really is an awful place to be queer).

And so under the eager anticipation of hormonal change, there is fear. Fear of violence, physical or verbal or emotional. Since I have started transitioning I have experienced such abuse, and to imagine that abuse decreasing as my mental and bodily feminization accompany the already exposed nature of my femme identity would be naive. My commute, by train, has become like gambling on a daily basis.

Some days it feels a bit like the Matrix. Neo on the sidewalk, being bumped constantly by all passersby, while Morpheus glides effortless through the world. I never know who exactly moves like Morpheus, but I follow her with great difficulty.

Recently, I took a night out, with friends, to a party first, then to a drag show. Efforts at achieving a new version of high-femme brought me out in an ultra-soft poofed out sweater over a long black dress. The look was as close as I’ve been to 1950s Hollywood starlet, and I don’t mind saying, I felt sexy. Until I realized that such sartorially expressive queerness communicated, without intention, an open invitation to rub one’s hands upon me. “A fuzzy lady like this demands to be touched,” I joked to a friend, making light of the situation that brought for the first time a new understanding of my body. Your touches aren’t welcome, but defusing my discomfort with a joke seemed then, and likely will in the future, an easier path than a simple assertive statement like, “please don’t touch me.”

The lesson for others, of course, is keep your fucking hands to yourself. But the lesson for me is different, and no less important to learn: Your body is not your own. Not really. Our bodies expose us to the gaze and touch of others, Butler says.

What small irritation I felt that night points to the shortcomings of body ownership and the illusion of autonomy that we maintain when we exist in public.

To transition is to claim a larger part in the public performance of life. “One man plays many parts,” Shakespeare wrote, a few lines after that famous quip: “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.” My trans-ness, or at least the embodiment of it, has of late felt akin to an entrance on the stage, a new act, another part. Shakespeare and Butler are calling on the same truth, though invariably for different ends.

Boys, Erased

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Me at Fernbrook Elementary School, circa 1988-89

Heading out to see Boy, Erased today. Long overdue but its release has been weirdly limited in MSP and also, I’m busy. And lazy. Anyway, it got a wide release over the holiday weekend so off I go.

I read Garrard Conley’s memoir last year, and, while our personal stories have little in common, the markers of our lives are quite similar: queerness, gayness, religion, fear of parental rejection, actual parental rejection.

Conley was an Evangelical Christian when he was forced out of the closet in college, by the very person who sexually assaulted him. The son of a preacher and a faithful believer himself, the conservative religiousness of Conley’s community was used as a weapon to, well, attempt to erase him.

I, on the other hand, got close to the idea of coming out as a teenager. But confronted with the reality of

a: not knowing what the heck my deal was, and
b: having to come to out to my dad,

I  retreated. I’m talking a deep retreat, into the religious conservatism that was weaponized against Conley, and so many other LGBTQ young people. I became a Christian. A born-again Evangelical for the rest of high school; then, for about ten more years, just your run of the mill midwestern progressive mainliner.

Garrard’s faith, family, community, all tried to erase his queerness with the horrific programs of conversion therapy. I attempted to erase it myself, with evangelicalism.

It would be another twenty years before I figured out enough of my deal to come out (still mining the depths, but getting deeper daily). And the act, coming out, turned my world inside out even at 36 years old. Conley, at 19 or so, was pushed out, into the fire, and had his own resulting traumas. Which is just to reiterate the uncontroversial but crucial point, that the stories of LGBTQ folks finding their place in the American cultural and religious landscape are all unique, but many of the brands we’ve been burned with are the same.

More:
Listen to Radiolab’s podcast series on conversion therapy, UnErased.
Listen to Garrard Conley on Cameron Esposito’s show, Queery.