The past eight months have in no way been what I imagined. To not bury the lede: I am, unexpectedly, now the owner of a condominium unit, and my parents have begun to understand how real my transition is. And it started with my childhood bedroom.
Immigrants are always homesick. This is the core of our story. Even those of us who flee horrific circumstances have at least one thing we remember fondly, or that becomes fond when it is gone. To emigrate is to surround oneself with the unfamiliar, and to live in the echoing absence of what was once everywhere. There are days when those echoes are a deafening cacophony, laying down the impossible demand of that incoherent word, home.
Ottawa’s yearly Latin festival puts the many feelings of that word into focus. This gathering of my people in the plaza before Ottawa City Hall is a riot of sensation. Live music invites listeners to come close, and an uproar of food smells permeates the area. Hand-written signs advertise our regional specialties with words I rarely see even on our restaurant menus, and every spoonful of yellow rice and chunk of slow-roasted pork is a portal to a world I left long ago. Even the less familiar offerings, Peruvian noodles that take notes from South America’s Chinese community and Colombian pastries I’ve never tried, come with our unmistakable aroma and style.
“This is what it means to be a girl, isn’t it? To never feel like enough.”
I wrote these words as one of the sadder moments in “The Prom Pine,” a short story whose fanfiction version you can read here. (The non-fanfiction version, an extended narrative meditation on dissociation and its uses, will appear in a future edition of Spoon Knife.) It’s true that this world imposes that pressure on women in general, with every ad for makeup, diet, clothing, exercise, and more promising relief from that anhedonic treadmill, but trans women face a special pressure here. The outside world doles out validation in proportion to our efforts to conform to cisfeminine expectations, and we often start from difficult positions, testosterone poisoning setting us back before we even begin. It takes eons of soul-searching to find the lines between gender dysphoria, social conditioning, and everything else. I’ve found a whole other line, and it weighs on me now.
Transformation and exchange are two of the most thematically interesting ways to explore gender and relationships in fiction. This isn’t a new idea, with the story of Tiresias providing an example from Greek antiquity. Such stories can range from ignorant and banal to nuanced and powerful. As a trans woman, I have long held a fascination with them, and they ultimately helped me come to understand what I wanted from my body and my life. “Striking Vipers,” the first episode of season 5 of Black Mirror, is neither of these, instead being a tragic, wasteful misfire that perhaps handles some of its other themes better than this one.
There are a lot of good things to be said about the body positivity movement. Encouraging people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and abilities to feel beautiful and valuable despite not fitting into their society’s narrow mold is a transparently good idea. People deserve to not feel insecure or ashamed of their bodies, especially when the source of that insecurity isn’t much bigger than marketing. There is a darker side to constantly proclaiming that people should accept themselves “just as they are,” however. Some people’s problems with how their bodies are shaped aren’t a matter of trying to live up to an unreachable beauty standard, and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Transgender people face continuous, intense opposition to everything we are and everything we do in much of the world. One of the forms that this aggression takes is proclaiming that trans people shouldn’t want to reshape our bodies to fit with their genders, and should accept our deviant shapes “just as they are,” all couched in the language of body positivity. To undertake aesthetic, medical, or surgical interventions to change appearance is, in this view, to succumb to social pressures that we should instead be resisting. By their logic, a trans man should strive to be content with growing breasts he never wanted, and a trans woman should embrace the androgenic baldness that awaits her if she doesn’t take hormone replacement therapy, because to do otherwise would be insufficiently “positive.”
As the surreal hellscape of 2017 winds to a close, it’s time to look back on the past year of blogging and pick out some high points my dear readers might have missed. So, for your enjoyment, here are ten of Alyssa’s proudest creations of 2017.
Today, we are candles.
I didn’t grow up with the word “dyke” meaning anything to me. The dialects of Spanish that were my first language don’t have ready equivalents for it, preferring euphemisms that only become offensive in certain tones. I don’t know if the people I came from use “perica” or “tortillera” for themselves, or if they borrow the more evocative slurs used for gay men, or use some other language entirely. My mother preferred to stammer out her disgust in English half-syllables whenever she had to mention queer women, and that sense of wrongness stayed attached to those words in my mind. I was closed to this part of myself in those days, unaware of my queer heritage even as I found no room in my heart for their contempt. The queer community where I finally found myself speaks primarily English, and it’s here that I finally met proud dykes.
I come from huge families. My mother was one of seven, and my father’s mother was one of nine. Between them, I have fourteen first cousins, at least five second cousins, eleven first cousins once removed that I know about, and more miscellaneous spouses and siblings than I care to track.
Mom never forgave her siblings for moving away from each other. Most of the brood ended up within driving distance of one another in the Great Northeastern Conurbation, albeit in three different states, but one stayed in Puerto Rico, one followed work to North Carolina, and Mom followed the needs of her husband’s family and moved to Miami. Most of the seven are involved in the US military in some way, and some of my cousins continued that legacy, and that meant being passed around bases and active duty for years at a time, far from their kin.
Dad’s family all ended up in Miami, sooner or later. My grandmother used to visit relatives in Cuba, but she is long gone, and it is likely they are as well. Most of Dad’s side of the family made Miami their first home outside of Cuba, but Dad’s path passed through New Jersey first. I grew up there, getting acquainted with Mom’s nearby relatives first and not really recognizing Dad’s side of the family until they became our frequent reality after the move. Even then, Dad was an only child, so all of the relatives were a generation apart from me, whereas my maternal cousins were close to my age, so Dad’s family and I are not well acquainted.
After picking through the family tree to survey my safety within it, I find this a tragedy.