Saturday, March 6, 2010

Responding to cissexualism in a feminist magazine

Note: The following is a letter I wrote to the editor of F Word, a feminist magazine published at the University of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately the article to which I am responding is available at their website (

Dear Anusha,

My name is Sonia Horan; we met (briefly) at the Penn campus as you were distributing copies of F Word. As I told you then, I’m generally very pleased to see a free feminist magazine available at a university campus—I wish my university had similarly made feminist ideas so readily accessible. However, as I also told you, I did take issue with Daniella Malekan’s analysis of Boys Don’t Cry. It’s ironic that in your own editor’s note you say, “Feminism isn’t an oppressive sight, sound, or symbol,” yet Malekan’s essay (regardless of her intentions) is, indeed, oppressive. Granted, I don’t want to presume that Malekan set out to erase Brandon’s identity, and I hope she did not intended to focus on sexuality at the exclusion of gender identity; nonetheless, her piece is highly problematic insofar as it undermines Brandon’s gender identity and, in so doing, also undermines the very point Malekan is trying to get across, namely that normative restrictions on identity marginalize queer identities and often produce violent (and at least produce oppressive) responses to “non-normative” identities.

In the GLAAD media resource guide ( and the AP Stylebook, New York Time and Washington Post media reference guides ( there are clearly outlined rules for discussing transgender people. In particular, they include a review of problematic and defamatory language and directions for pronoun and name usages. Throughout her essay, Malekan uses female pronouns (she/her) for Brandon despite Brandon’s clear identification as male/masculine. Indeed, Malekan also refers to Brandon not by his chosen name, but as “Teena/Brandon.” Let me be frank: Malekan’s piece did not respect Brandon’s preferred name or his preferred pronouns and therefore did not respect his identity. At best, the way in which Brandon’s gender was treated in this essay was highly inappropriate, and overall none of Malekan’s references to Brandon were in keeping with any of the above-mentioned style guides. As an author in a feminist magazine I would hope Malekan would be aware of these issues, and as an editor I hoped you would require submitted works to adhere to the guidelines of the GLAAD media resource guide—or at the very least the AP Stylebook.

Beyond merely being insensitive to Brandon’s identity, however, Malekan’s analysis of Boys Don’t Cry also has a most curious usage of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work. It is painfully ironic that Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet is used in an essay that, in effect, forces Brandon back into the closet. Malekan doesn’t seem to understand the factors surrounding Brandon’s rape and murder; she focuses entirely on Brandon’s sexuality without examining Brandon’s gender identity, and she doesn’t seem to acknowledge that a major factor in his murder was transphobia. In ignoring these critical details, Malekan misses the significance of Brandon’s murder—and further misses the point of Boys Don’t Cry. Indeed, Malekan’s essay takes a transsexual narrative, strips it of transgender substance, and repackages it purely as a gay narrative. She has reconstructed the transgender closet and forced any discourse of transphobia and transsexuality back inside, out of sight and out of mind.

To be frank once more: Malekan’s essay oozes cissexualism. Speaking as a transsexual, reading Malekan’s essay was particularly painful for me. It hurts, and it is offensive to see Brandon and other transgender victims of hate crimes co-opted into gay narratives at the expense of their identities. I really don’t think Malekan intended to offend, and I don’t think you intended to publish any oppressive literature—and I certainly don’t think either of you meant to silence trans voices. I’m hoping that this email does not put you or Daniella Malekan in a defensive position; if anything, I hope this correspondence has been able to raise awareness of implicit cissexualism/cisgenderism present in this particular essay and I hope that you and the voices represented in F Word will accurately and respectfully represent transgender identities in the future.

Thank you very much for your time. I hope to someday revisit the Penn campus, and when I do I will be interested to see how F Word has evolved.

Best wishes,

Sonia Horan

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Feeling a little dumber all the time.

It’s certainly not a common phenomenon, but I do (from time to time) find myself thinking that my intensive studies in genetics and cell biology have left me “less intelligent”—and by that I mean that I am, ultimately, not well-read and my knowledge and experience are severely narrow. My thinking has been shaped such that instead of being able to readily access deep philosophical theory or enter fluently into meaningful social/cultural/theoretical/historical discourse, I’m more equipped to understand life on a microscopic level (as opposed to a macro- level; indeed, it seems perverse that, to me, issues of individual performativity are “macro-“ in scope). I guess this is (somewhat) to be expected, as most scientists don’t sit around reading J.S. Mill or the essays of George Orwell—most geneticists have no clue who Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick or Judith Butler are. Perhaps this shared ignorance should make me feel less like an intellectual outsider, as I only recently learned who Mill is and just found out that Orwell wrote prose in addition to his famous novels (although this is hardly surprising). However, when I find myself seated in the audience at one of Judith Butler’s lectures, surrounded primarily by students in the humanities, I find little comfort in my extensive knowledge of meiosis and genetic sex determination.
Indeed, I end up feeling more or less stupid. It’s not that I can’t follow Dr. Butler’s lecture—I can (and found it to be most enlightening). It’s in that moment when the lecture has ended, and audience members have time to ask questions of the esteemed professor—in that instant when opposing ideas of philosopher who, evidently, are well-known in the humanities (but completely obscure to me), I feel my usually sharp intellect is dulled. I guess it’s a cop-out to blame this on my science background, though I certainly feel that majoring in the sciences has largely contributed to my lagging knowledge of philosophies in the humanities. I am aware that I could have read more before college, and that I did choose to major in the genetics instead of double (or triple) majoring and expanding the breadth of my education. I regret this, though. Perhaps this is an artefact of having friends who, for the most part, are studying in the humanities while I am one of a very small number delving into genetics.
It’s somewhat disturbing to me to realize that some do consider me to be well-read. I end up quoting Camus or reference Kafka and suddenly I’m looked at (by some) as being a giant geek who’s over-intellectualizing everything. That kind of attitude, evidently, pisses people off, as they don’t seem to want to analyse everything or be berated by references to authors who (to them) are obscure. Clearly, I understand this as I feel something analogous in these lectures—although my frustration lies more with my inadequacies as a student/thinker and less with the person referencing foreign ideas. Conclusively, I hate feeling out of the loop and inadequately read. In a related (but different) sense, I also hate discussing my current academic studies with strangers:

Stranger: So, what do you study?
Me: I study genetics.
Stranger [looking dumbfounded]: Really? Wow. And what do you do there? Study cancer or...
Me: I’m researching meiotic recombination events in monotremes.
Stranger [looking discombobulated]: ...
Me: Crossing over in platypus and echidna. See...there are paternal and maternal chromosomes and...
Stranger [clearly not listening/understanding, but nodding along]
Me: when mammals make sperm these chromosomes have to physically exchange genetic material before segregating into different cells. I study that process in platypus. [thinking: Shit, you clearly don’t give a fuck.]

I think that the problem ultimately comes down to two things: 1) most scientists I know are fairly vanilla/straight-edge and are therefore not terribly alternative/counter-culture (like most of my friends and I are), and 2) I find myself being more and more intellectually interested/attracted in the humanities while I’m largely bored with science (although I still do find some of science to be extremely engaging). Being interested in both disciplines is problematic as I find people who can participate in my scientific discourses to often be too normative/narrow to properly engage me, while my own limitations (due in large part to my own high focus in science and ignorance of many social theorists) partly alienates me from feeling like I am qualified to participate in more philosophical discourses.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Middle of the Road

I don’t particularly like playing favourites, but I have to say my fav (famous) trans man is Lucas Silveira of The Cliks. I dare say that I love him; however, I could always be conflating my love of his music with my love for the man—but how could anyone really divorce the two? Lucas puts his soul behind every note that passes his lips, wears his life on his beautifully tattooed sleeves. But it’s not the intensely passionate music of The Cliks that has me writing today; rather I direct your attention to a 2007 interview with Lucas, in which he said:

But because of the choice that I had to make, I started looking at trans in a very different way. I feel really invisible as a trans man because I’m not able to take Testosterone. I don’t have the visual aspects that a man has, I’m not hairy, my body is different.
I had this really interesting conversation with a friend of mine, a trans guy. He made the decision not to go on T. He said, “I feel if I did Testosterone, it would make me invisible as a trans man.” I’ve been hanging onto that because it just made me think so intensely about walking in this world having everybody treat me as male and having achieved this male privilege that a lot of guys who are trans feel like they’ve attained.
I started thinking about that because I feel like, not only am I a voice for the trans community going out into mainstream, but there are guys like me. We’re they guys who are truly in the middle. I’ve had top surgery, but I’m not doing T. And to tell you the truth, I don’t know if I ever will. I feel very comfortable being where I am right now.

Lucas has a very interesting attitude here, where so much focus is placed on the so-called full transition he shaped his own dynamic: because music is so essential in his life, hormones were simply not an option. In general, I’m fascinated with the dynamics of others’ transitions: where they start, where they stop, and—most important—what, specific expressions and metamorphoses are necessary (as well as which are not) in order for any given person to feel comfortable in their skins. What I like is that in a broader, more fluid sense people are starting to realize they may not need surgeries or hormone treatments in order to be men, women, etc. Instead of the classic models of transsexuality wherein a trans person is expected to go on hormones and have surgeries to completely remodel their bodies to the ideals of their self-identified sex, now we’re seeing people selectively taking steps of transition, stopping in places that the traditional model would deem “middle of the road”—and what’s more, trans people today are doing this and confidently feeling comfortable as men, women, etc. in that so-called “middle” state.

Granted, this isn’t really anything too new (at least, it’s not to people in the trans community. The psych/medical community, on the other hand...): people have been self-manufacturing their transitions for a long time now, with many of them outside of the influence of medical professionals. It makes me think. At what point was/is my transition finished? Why do I see different transition dynamics being more common in the FTM spectrum than I do on the MTF side of the aisle? I’m sure most people in the trans community have different answers to these questions—many of them probably have some different observations than I as well. But because this is my blog, and because I’m largely just writing what’s first coming to my mind right now, I’m going to relate these observations and these attitudes right back on myself.

Last week I went down to the beach at Glenelg, and while there I was approached by a man selling pony rides (I kid you not). This fellow (God help him, he was trying to be crafty) proceeded to beat around the gender bush (no, not that gender bush), calling me a “handsome woman,” and insinuated that I had made some unique gender choices (in contrast to my Venezuelan friend, whom he described as a “beautiful woman”). In his attempts to clarify that he meant no offense, he simply stated that I “stand out in a crowd.” Thanks, chief: you just said I don’t pass. But, what may have been obvious to pony-boy here wasn’t obvious to several people I’ve met since transitioning, and I ultimately have to contrast this man’s assessment of me with that of my friends, who having known me in all my shapes/forms see me as a girl. Juxtapose that with Lucas, who said, “I don’t have the visual aspects that a man has, I’m not hairy, my body is different.” I always thought Lucas passed perfectly—one look at that damn sexy man and I’m thinking my sexuality is more fluid than I thought—but when I showed the video for “Dirty King” to one of my cisgender friends, she pegged Lucas right away, saying, “She’s really hot.”

It underlies the difference between how an individual can perceive their gender and how other may read them. If I only hear Lucas’ voice—untouched by testosterone—I hear a man’s voice. When I see him, I see a man—I have a hard time seeing him as anything else. My friend, on the other hand, completely unaware of the trans world around her, saw and heard a girl. And Lucas, well, he feels comfortable in his skin as a man, despite having a different body than cis-men...despite having never undergone hormone treatment.

I’m slow to hop on the queer train to candy mountain. I’ve been largely self-conscious and self-critical of my own body and face, thinking them to be overtly masculine, fearing that I’d never really be comfortable in my own gender/body until I could tear myself apart and rebuild my body atom by atom—but I think this is why I love the tans men so much. Not to say trans women don’t do the same, but the men have always seemed so much more embracing of the middle ground...and slowly, I’m coming over to that side, to find comfort in my own Amazon physique. This is (hopefully) my last word on passing: finding peace in the middle...and it only took a sexy trans man punk/alt. rocker to show me the way.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A new transition

I feel like I should address the reason why I haven’t been writing for this blog lately—take care of all the boring housekeeping announcements before I actually compose any interesting thoughts relating back to the theme of this blog. I just recently completed the core component of my PhD program—which, it turned out, was no insignificant task, as my final document ran for 31 pages and had a bibliography documenting over 200 references. Yet, at the end of this gruelling marathon-writing, I’ve found myself preparing for another transition in life: a transfer out of my current program to a master’s in the School of Social Sciences. I’m trying not to say too much about it, because nothing has actually been confirmed at this point; however, with a little bit of luck I will soon be hanging up my lab coat and moving on to work on a degree in gender studies.
This is a major shift, and unless you’ve been one of my closer friends, it’s a decision that probably seems to come out of thin air. I’m not the kind of person to sit around and regret past decisions; nonetheless, one of my major regrets from my time at WSU is that I never got a second major in either Women’s Studies or Anthropology. I remember at the time I decided to just graduate early—a decision that was applauded by my former supervisor, Pat Hunt, as a regaining of sanity (she actually said, “I’m glad you’ve come to your senses” when I told her I would not be pursuing the second major; she, and many others in the sciences, view the social sciences as a waste of time, energy, and money). I realize that this is a major departure from genetics and the “hard” sciences—my discipline of choice for the last eight years—and it’s true, I’ve been a major science geek for as long as I can remember (hell, I even used to give up lunch recess in 4th and 5th grades so I could go do science experiments). But honestly, I’m not as passionate about the sciences as I used to be. Sure, I still find them interesting, but they’re no longer fulfilling.
With that in mind, I scheduled a meeting with the postgraduate coordinator for the department of Gender, Work and Social Inquiry here at the University of Adelaide, and together we discussed my ideas for a master’s thesis. Generally, I want to look at the relationship between physicalized gender identity (e.g. gender is conflated with sex such that in order to transition, one generally has to alter their body) versus a performative gender identity (e.g. trading one set of gender roles for another effectively “changes” one’s sex). Specifically, I want to look at these two manifestations of gender identity in ancient cultures and see how they have evolved over time...heh, maybe this is a little bigger than just a master’s degree (I may have to scale it back a little bit to be a more modern analysis...although I completely intend to get both ancient and contemporary viewpoints at some time).

Friday, January 8, 2010

Real humor...and from an unexpected place

A little over a year ago I was interviewed by the Pullman-Moscow Daily News about both my gender identity and my sexual orientation. And while I was mildly misquoted and full context was not always provided in the resulting article, it was (for the most part) a good interview, and it gave a somewhat different perspective than the stereotypical trans story. (I would post the full article, but I don't have access to it in its electronic format).
Anyway, today as I googled my name (as I do when I'm feeling masochistic/narcissistic and bored) I came across something I never expected: I was mentioned in a right-wing conservative blog. Who knew? As seen on the blog, Right Mind:

As reported in today’s edition of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Sonia Horan doesn't subscribe to the idea that she was born in the wrong body.

"I don't like the idea that this body isn't where I belong. That terminology sounds kind of defective," she said. "I was born male, and while I wasn't happy with my sex anatomy, it's the body I've been given and I can work with it."

The 21-year-old Horan is a transsexual, meaning she was born male but has chosen to live as a woman. It's a choice she's never regretted. It's also a choice that has made her more vulnerable to harm, as a rash of attacks have occurred in the last month against people within the gay and transsexual community on the Palouse.

"It is scary, but I've realized I don't want to be scared to death. I don't want to have to hide. My sexual identity shouldn't impact my safety. It does, but it shouldn't," said Horan, a project associate in the Washington State University School of Molecular Science who sexually prefers women.

Gives a whole new meaning to the cliché “a lesbian trapped inside a man’s body”.

The blog as a whole is disgustingly homophobic and transphobic and loves to pander in the "Christian persecution" BS--but all that is par for the course given their religious political ideologies. The funny thing is, I know this particular blog post is trying to make a joke at my expense with that, "Gives a whole new meaning to the cliché 'a lesbian trapped inside a man's body,'" and I know they have completely missed the point I was making in the interview, but their joke doesn't actually offend me. Frankly, I think they were inadvertently being funny while simultaneously not being the total douchebags they normally are (like when they say transition is mutilation and oppose drugs to prevent the onset of puberty in trans kids, or when suggest that the identities of trans people are invalid)...I mean, don't get me wrong, this blog is produced by a total asshole, but even jerks can sometimes fail at being offensive and instead make a lame, albeit mildly funny joke, right?
Maybe it's my ironic sense of humor--something I doubt The Right Mind utilizes--but that joke--"new meaning to a lesbian trapped in a man's body," is a joke I would ironically and flippantly make.
I'm now officially worried that in a random chance event I would make the same joke about myself as some bigot in Idaho. Huh.
Maybe I just have a sense of humor, and maybe even bigots can make happy mistakes (a la Bob Ross). And maybe David Letterman could learn something from this. I mean, the "lesbian trapped in a man's body" joke is played, and stupid, but it at least doesn't negate my identity, nor does it (unintentionally) condone the trans panic defense. It's true, the LGBT community often takes things a little too seriously, but I don't think that was the case with Letterman. I just never thought I'd see the day when a conservative blog made me laugh (in a good way?) at the same time late night comedy made me want to scream (although, given the state of late night comedy, I guess only the republican humor is surprising).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Sometimes I think that I'm bigger than the sound

Warning: This may be triggering to anyone who does or has self harmed or is or has struggled with suicidal ideation. Read with care.
Author’s note: I don’t like coming off this pathetic and depressing—I don’t. I know that’s been the tone of many of my recent posts, and I’m sorry. I also want to just let everyone know I’m fine. I’m ok. I’m okay.

Yesterday I got the results of one of my many non-degree-related “experiments”: the genderfuck. I was called into a photo studio to review some of the images taken of me following my pseudo-make-over, and as the studio sales girl flipped through the portfolio I was overcome with discomfort and anxiety. The images were hideous; they failed to capture the same Sonia who was mischievously marauding Adelaide days prior. Instead I found a monstrosity looking back at me through the film, a misshapen mass disfigured from years of testosterone poisoning and unfortunate genetics—neither female nor male, not human. Monster.

About midway through the photo slide-show, the sales girl asked me, “I’m just curious, are you changing your sex?” A lead weigh smashed through my rib cage and pushed me down into my seat. As my mind began to fog, I replied, “I hate to be rude, but that’s none of your damn business.” I tried to quickly rebuild my defences, but that damning blow had already been dealt. I hastened my exit, breathing hard as I walked back home. Slamming my bedroom door behind me, I crashed into my bed, screaming the words “Fuck” and “Cunt” through clenched teeth and heaving sobs. I reached for my hand mirror and started beating it against my knee, determined to smash the glass and use the shards to carve a new map across my skin, write the confessions of my monstrous self, lay my sins bare in blood for the world to see.
I don’t know how people like Amanda Simpson are strong enough to even stand in the face of the cruelty of others; I can barely keep sane with the voices in my head, let alone any derision from the world. It’s been a year since I last harmed myself—one hour in that photo studio and I was ready to through that year away, ready to reach for that razor again and mutilate my body until the world couldn’t help be see the monster I am—until I looked as broken and malformed as I felt, and the suspicions of other were confirmed: I’m a freak show. It’d be alright then; I would scarred, but it would be ok. I’d be the one doing the hurting this time—my choice. The old justifications felt warm and comfortable. Over the subsequent 24 hours I’ve had suicidal thoughts colliding across my consciousness: how long would it take for the question of my absence to spark the search to uncover my body—questions of how my parents would handle an international suicide, wondering how long it would take the news to break on facebook...wondering if those people would ever find out what had happened.

I had bought tickets to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in concert and after weeks of patient waiting the show was upon me. Unsurprisingly, my suicidal ideation retarded my desire to go. I contemplated staying home, hiding under my covers, but was ultimately spurred on by past regrets. I walked the 2.3 km to the theatre, stood in line, and waited for one of my favourite bands to take the stage.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs in concert—Karen O in the flesh—is pure euphoria. Something happened to me, sitting in my seat in the balcony. I felt the vibrations of the guitar and drums pounding across my skin, penetrating down, rattling my bones. I felt Karen’s voice pierce my chest, pull apart my shattered rib cage and shock my heart into beating again. The lyrics and visual stimulants—Karen O’s legendary stage antics, the explosive lights, the neon and the glitter—swiftly diffused across my blood/brain barrier and took hold of my consciousness and ran. Something happens when the beat fills your flesh, the sights engross your vision, lyrics conquer your mind, and sound fills your ear canals—suddenly the waves of bodies between you and the stage, the atmosphere thick with sound canvassing the air between you and the band, the sea of electrons between your soul and the music—it all vanishes because you become with the with that blissful euphoria.

After the concert, I ran the 2.3 km back home, full of energy from the show, burning with passion and reanimated with the sound. The fears, anxieties, and depression, for the time, abolished, and in their stead was hope. Hope for reclamation.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs send out the message, “Don’t give a shit, and just be whatever you want.” I’m still wondering how I can be whatever I want despite the limits of my body (despite the seething self hatred that boils up every now and again), but I figure I’ll get there in time. And for your information, Mr. Mclean, music can save your mortal soul, even from its own tendencies to self-destruct. For this moment, I exist in the music, and I feel free. I feel: free.

Skeletons by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Love, my name
Love, left dry
Frost or flame
Skeleton me

Fall asleep
Spin the sky
Skeleton me
Wait, don't cry

Love, don't cry
Love, don't cry
Skeleton me
Skeleton me
Soon comes rain
Dry your eyes
Frost or flame
Skeleton me

Fall asleep
Spin the sky
Skeleton me
Love, don't cry
Love, don't cry
Love, don't cry
Skeleton me
Skeleton me