Saturday, February 14, 2009

Tattoo / Trans Stigma

Earlier this week while in the company of two trans bois I began to question my own trans status; here I am, fully transitioned, and I (for the most part) seem to blend in with the crowd. Unlike these trans bois, I do not fuck with gender, and unlike these bois my body has been altered to such a degree that even gynecologists cannot tell I was not born this way. In these avenues of conformation, and in light of my last post, I’ve begun to wonder if maybe it is more “deceitful” to say I am transgender—obviously I’ll always be trans on some fundamental level (therefore neither saying I’m trans nor saying I’m a girl are in any way acts of deception), but I think you know where I am going with this.

Come to today: one of my best friends calls me, asking how I’ve been along with other generic “catch-up” kinds of dialog. At some point in our conversation I tell her about my designs to get a full sleeve tattoo on my left arm. There’s a moment of dead silence on the other line before my friend asks why I would want to do this to myself. Why would I want to hide away my “beauty” (her word, not mine)? Don’t I realize that having that many tattoos send mixed signals? The way she sees it, I’ve worked so hard to become a girl that getting all these tattoos counteracts my transition. In other words, my tattoos make me more masculine or otherwise negate my femininity and hide away any traces of beauty I may have at the same time they provoke others to see me as an aggressor or a biker chick. Oh, and the tattoos will make it impossible for me to find employment. As if to stress just how fucking manly I am, upon hearing all these arguments I begin to cry. This is like all those other times people have gendered me incorrectly—assigned a masculine gender to me or seen through me—seen me as a boy or a freak. So what was that I was saying about not feeling “trans” anymore?

I wasn’t really planning on doing my post about body modification just now—I still have a lot of research to do, especially concerning intersections with Queer Theory and the Cyborg Manifesto. With that in mind, this will only be a mini-introduction, seeing as it’s mostly a response to gendering bodies. Whether or not you recognize it as such, genital reassignment surgery (GRS)—indeed the totality of transitioning—is a form of body modification. Generally trans people view the transition process as a kind of transformation—the butterfly’s metamorphosis has been used as a trans symbol so frequently it has become cliché. Getting tattooed, in some ways, is analogous to the transition; Kip Fulbeck, a professor at UC Santa Barbara said, “Choosing to get tattooed transforms you—sometimes innocuously, other times with profound significance…Getting tattooed transforms how others view you, and often how you see yourself.” If you replace the word “tattoo” with “gender transition” you have, in a nut shell, the transsexual experience. In a more queer sense, body modifications such as tattoos or GRS are means of reclaiming the body. We are born without any consent or control over how our bodies look or how society will gender our bodies. In these modifications we transform and redefine our bodies on our terms to fit our designs.

There’s a problem with the reclamation, however, in that through these modifications other doors of judgment are opened. Each of my tattoos means something significant to me—each carries with it symbolic representation of my soul; to have this intimate expression then turned back around on me—for others to use it as a means of re-gendering me back into masculinity and as a fixture on which to base assumptions and meaning about me—it’s a gross abuse. Why should being born with a male exterior make me any less of a girl? Why should a plethora of prevalent tattoos detract from either my femininity or my beauty? Get to know me first: though I’m fairly ambitions and assertive I’m anything but an aggressor. I can cry easily and I have a touchy-feely girly side resting just below the surface. Bodies matter, but the heterosexist values used to create assumptions based on those bodies are misguided. My tattoos have marked me on a very visible level as permanently trans; tattooed bodies are today seen as an act of transgression, they are (on women) often associated with a challenging or rejection of traditional gender roles. In this way they are assigned, even in the queer community, a more powerful and masculine meaning, therein propagating the traditional gender hierarchies. The question still remains: who has control over my body; who has power to assign or reassign meaning to my body? Regardless of how we modify ourselves there are always those with power to assign their own meanings to us despite our actions of transformation or reclamation. This is the burden of visible difference—this is the consequence of open transgression: a constant disport in social oppression.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Deceiver

Because I’m a masochist—and also partly because I have a foolish optimistic hope of progress towards acceptance—I watched the sixth episode of the “Real World: Brooklyn” today. This week was the week Katelynn finally told the rest of her roommates that she is, in fact, transgender. Now, all throughout the show all the boys would joke about her, making jokes that questioned her gender identity, objectifying her body, and generally speaking about her as though she were a side show freak. It’s lovely, right? There was even one point in the show that her gay male roommate outted her to the rest of the boys, discussing her surgery and otherwise compromising the trust Katelynn had placed in him. In all these ways the “Real World” has disgusted me. Tonight was no different. The guys made jokes at her expense, ridiculed her behind her back, and complained that she still had not come out to them. The way the guys talked implied they felt privy to these very intimate details—they have the right to know all the “dirty” secrets, dammit, and it’s an insult that she isn’t opening her entire biological history on the couch or letting the boys poke around her genitals. Okay, that’s an exaggeration…but only a very small exaggeration!

Katelynn touched on this in her blog: the deception myth. There’s a long-standing trend to blame trans people for all the violence that befalls them. Oh, you were raped, beaten, strangled and shot three times in the face? Silly you—you deserved it. After all, you didn’t walk around with the word “transgender freak fuck” tattooed on your forehead. No. You deceived us. You lied to us, seduced us, sexually assaulted and harassed us. You deserved it.

You may think I took irony a little too far just now, but I disagree. The attitudes shown on the “Real World” were subtler, less violent than the case I just sarcastically described—but that “sarcasm” is, sadly, a reality. One year ago today Letitia King, 15, was murdered by a one of her male classmates because she loved him. If you haven’t heard of Letitia, maybe you’d recognize her by the name Lawrence King. After she was murdered, many in the media decided to depict her as something of a sexual predator: she “is portrayed as having stalked, sexually harassed, and bullied Brandon [her killer] into a corner where his only possible response was pulling that trigger” (Alex Blaze). And even when Letitia was depicted somewhat sympathetically in the media, her gender identity and preferred name were erased, and in their place the name “Lawrence” and male pronouns dominated. People said Lawrence was murdered because he was gay.

How Letitia was treated in the media, as I said, is not uncommon. Remember Angie Zapata? When she died there was a huge outcry—even within the trans community—that she should have been out about her trans status, that because she wasn’t honest she brought about her own murder. The same arguments flew around when Gwen Araujo was murdered: this idea that trans people are actively engaged in deceiving people, seducing them, and therein deserving of the violence enacted upon them.

This is what they call cis-privilege. It’s that trans people are expected to disclose their history and their genetalia while cis people are not. It’s that trans people are still seen as deceivers and frauds when cis people are not. When speaking to some folks about being transgender, some have said to me, “Wow, I never would have guessed you were…I mean, you look like a girl.” I know what they’re trying to say, and I know they’re trying to give me a compliment, but what they’re saying is “Wow, I would have never guessed you weren’t a girl.” Thanks for the back-handed compliment. The non-transgender world has positioned itself with this perceived power to invalidate the identity of trans people—to paint us as perpetrators of violence and deceit while those who actually beat and kill us are victims. It is ridiculous that this is used as an excuse for violence, and just as frustrating that these same belief structures are used to deconstruct a person’s identity into genitals—organs that may or may not adequately reflect that person’s perception of self.

Being transgender and living my life on my terms—being myself—is not deceit. It’s hard enough to go through life with the fear that should I entrust my gender history to friends and loved ones they might abandon or harm me. While sharing this information should not negate my sex or change who I am in any way, often this information is used to define me and to devalue and objectify me. I’m a girl, just as Gwen was, and Letitia was, and Angie was, and Katelynn is. Our presentation as such is not a deception, but rather the opposite: it is authenticity. Our transgender status or identities or histories does not change the fact that we are women. And those who know who I am and know about my transsexuality should consider themselves damn privileged and honored that I entrusted them with this information—that I decided to share this intimate piece of myself—because you are not entitled to this knowledge.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stuck in the mud

I feel pretty pathetic for not having posted anything here in so long; I’d planned at one point to have three new blogs up by now—and, indeed, I have half of each written—but sometimes life gets in the way (or some analogous cliché). The past week has been…no. The past three years have been obscured. It’s like driving around at night in a dense fog, my brain feels clouded, as though all my intellectual faculties have become this nebulous mess that I’m trying to see through. I don’t know what happened: in high school I spent 100% of my time completely devoted to academic success, and I was pretty damn brilliant—and that’s not me bragging; really, I was amazing and fabulous—second in my class only because the valedictorian had one or two more AP classes than I did. I had this intense affinity for mathematics and biological science; it was as though I breathed them. I suppose this momentum continued into my first semester of university. That fall I took second semester chemistry, second semester biology, French film, and an art history class, and I pretty much rocked the world of every class. I passed biology with a 100%--a 98% in chemistry. I wrote French as though I were fluent in the language, and art…well, any buffoon could excel in that class with their eyes closed. I had a 4.0 GPA, just like in high school, so what happened after that first semester?

Beginning in 2006 I felt my powers slowly slipping into this haze, just under the surface where I could not get at them. You might be able to guess, but the dimming of my academic brilliance (or, rather, what I perceive to be a dimming of such) coincided with the beginning of my transition. It started out slow: that second semester I only had one A- (that was organic chemistry), but every step thereafter I felt as though I was performing well below my potential. I got (gasp!) more A-‘s, even a couple of B’s! The horror! But joking aside, I know damn well I was capable of graduating with a 4.0, even with the student groups and “social activities” I had going on. And now, over a year after graduation, I feel so stagnant, as though all my powers have not been exercised in four years. They’re begging to be brought back to the level they were in high school. Problem is I don’t know if that’s possible.

It’s at this point I really want to make a joke about this all being a symptom of woman’s intellectual inferiority, but I don’t know who reads this, and I don’t know if you’d appreciate my twisted sense of ironic humor. There is that fear, however, that somehow my transition has diminished my intellectual abilities in some way—or rather clouded my mind. I’m passive to these complex ideas that float around me all day. I’m not engaging Queer Theory at the levels I should be, and I’m not delving into my biological studies the way I used to. It’s as though all that raw power is just out of reach. I can see it, but not tap into it. It’s like being chained back behind a translucent curtain. And I’m not sure if that makes any sense to anyone—I don’t know if you’ve felt this strange combination of stagnation and dimming and clouding of the mind. And I know this doesn’t really have much to do with transgender anything—it’s really more my long drawn-out excuse as to why I haven’t been writing real blogs posts…and why I don’t feel like I’ve made any intellectual achievements in three years. I used to sit around and think that maybe this was a symptom of redirecting my energies from academia to personal issues—that’s in some ways what I did when I began my transition, and anyone who has made the dramatic switch to estrogen can probably attest to the fact that it makes you confront emotions on a more intensive level than testosterone does. But now I’m not so sure that excuse holds.

I guess this is when Sisyphus watched the rock roll back down the mountain. It's a moment of brief clarity (if you can call it that). I'm feeling a huge disconnect between me and my intellect, between me and my own academic future, and between me and this activism that just two months ago was so important to me. I feel like I've somewhat slipped away from my own life--or at least from some major aspects of my person. I need to wake up and somehow figure out how to get myself back.