Answers for Trans Day of Visibility Questions

I arranged a question-and-answer session on my Facebook profile on this year’s Trans Day of Visibility. My friends and other visitors brought up some amusing, interesting, and valuable questions. For posterity’s sake, that’s all here now.

  1. Isn’t having the superpower of invisibility the other 364 days of the year awesome?

It’s kind of disappointing, really. It makes it so much harder to get appreciation for all of these selfies.

  1. We’re making roast chicken with green beans and rice tonight; as a trans woman, how do you feel about that?

    Alyssa in a black top and black skirt with a red floral pattern. She is wearing her rainbow pride necklace and her slate-pencil-sea-urchin earrings.
    I was super happy with this look and with my new earrings, so I took a selfie.

The trans of me honors the roast chicken of you.

 

  1. What is a femme? I’ve heard the term a few times and I know you described yourself as femme.

Being femme means a combination of approximately two things.

Femmes generally feel good, natural, self-actualized, and attractive in feminine-coded clothing, jewelry, makeup, etc. There are more named subsets of femme than people who wear them, usually divided based on specific style archetypes they emulate: high femme (think corsets), hard femme (well-tailored women’s suits), etc., and what they all have in common is being designed with women’s bodies in mind.

Femme is not just clothing, though. There are behavior patterns and general ways of existing that come along for the ride. Femme body language is often demure, excitable, restrained, cute, and otherwise in alignment with many expectations of femininity. Being femme can mean expressing delight at cute and beautiful things freely and without reservation, often to the point of seeming childish, as well as being comparably free with expressions of affection and caring. The combination of this and the previous means that femmes often have a very different relationship to the visual language of power, as seen in masculine-coded clothing and behavior, than other people, and do not ourselves feel empowered, confident, or capable when we attempt or are coerced into attempting to use it.

Femme, like its butch counterpart, isn’t about strict definitions so much as fitting within a concept, so it is difficult to pin down any specific thing that someone has to have or be in order to be one or the other.

I should note that, while the clothing and behavior patterns associated with both butch and femme can be found in people of any gender and orientation, these terms are historically used by the queer community as internal descriptors. Many in the queer community are quite possessive of these words and resent when cishet people try to claim them, in part because there are aspects of both (and all their myriad subsets) that don’t make much sense outside of the queer community. There are conversations, for example, about femme invisibility within the queer community, where femmes often fail to ping anyone’s gaydar and are dismissed as straight cis women playing tourist in queer spaces, that don’t make sense if “femme” is taken to include women who are straight and cis. Relatedly, some non-binary people take “butch” and “femme” as their gender labels.

Some of the differences between butch and femme aesthetics, body language, and so on can be seen in these two rather charming videos.

 

  1. Could you tell me about some interesting trans people, groups, movements, etc. in history (of any region or era) about which I as a recipient of American public schooling was never educated?

I can, and I will.

The top of that list is the Stonewall riots, from which the Gay Pride movement was born. These riots have their transfeminine, racialized roots removed from entirely too many discussions, up to and including having their black (Marsha P. Johnson) and Hispanic (Sylvia Rivera) protagonists sidelined in favor of a white man in Roland Emmerich’s travesty of a Stonewall film. The people who came to organize Gay Pride decided that they would happily take up the momentum secured by Johnson, Rivera, and other trans women, but would sideline them to present more “respectable” white gay men to the mainstream, in a move both strategic and bigoted, and Stonewall has been presented principally as a “gay” event since. Queer communities of color continue to fight against the sanitization of the Stonewall riots and of the gay pride movement in general, because doing so makes it harder to secure rights, recognition, and safety for the less “respectable” subsets whose rights are so often used as bargaining chips.

Another important fact that American education systems determinedly leave out is the fact that transfeminine people didn’t suddenly appear in the 20th century West. As evinced in the “third-gender” categories many cultures maintain, transgender people have existed forever all over the world and still do.

One frequently-neglected tidbit of queer history is the fact that the most famous photo of Nazi book-burning is actually of the burning of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, or Institute for Sexual Studies, in Berlin. The life’s work of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, widely regarded as the first (western?) activist for gay rights, it contained a library filled with his research into the prevalence of gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Germany as well as even more pioneering work on gender-affirming medicine for transgender people. The loss of all of this research set back progress on HRT, gender-affirming surgery, and the normalization of being transgender in the West at least 60 years. Newer memorials to his work are frequently vandalized.

 

  1. Do you feel safer/more at ease around trans men then around cis men?

Men in general make me instinctively nervous until their own behavior reassures me that I do not have to be on guard around them. Absent a compelling reason for their company, I tend to avoid them. Trans men elicit this response from me as much as cis men do. I have noticed, however, that trans men have an easier time getting past that initial reticence on my part. It is possible that this is the result of a selection bias, as nearly all of the trans men I have met and known as such were encountered in otherwise women-centered spaces, which tend to exclude trans men who are not adroit at making women feel safe.

 

  1. Are there aspects of your personality that you think have changed from hormone therapy?

Going on HRT is a lot like getting a mental illness treated. It’s hard to describe it any way other than “me, but more so.” What it wrought on my brain made me feel free to be me in ways I never felt before. On the outside, it looks like me being much more confident and interested in my own appearance, much more self-assured, and much more adroit in conversation…but in here, it’s more like internal barriers to all of that fell apart, and what was already in there could finally come out. For more thoughts on this aspect of transition, read here and here.

 

  1. Related: I’ve heard the opinion expressed (by a cis person) that being trans is a mental illness, the cure for which is transitioning. What do you think of that perspective? Accurate, garbage, or somewhere in between?

That specific phrasing is nonsense, because trans people don’t stop being trans when we transition. I think of it more like, I am a woman with a major endocrine disorder so serious that people thought I wasn’t a woman for close to 30 years, and I believed them. That endocrine disorder screwed up all sorts of things about my anatomy, some of which are fundamentally unfixable, and also altered my brain chemistry in deleterious ways. HRT is the treatment for most of that; surgery treats another bit; and other parts I’m just stuck with forever. Part of the frustration of being transgender is that many of these treatments are still considered elective, cosmetic, and frivolous, forcing an already-marginalized population to spend a lot of time soliciting money for medicine on the Internet. In this view, social transition is both part of the therapeutic process and a side effect, as we attempt to undo the damage of having our genders initially misidentified.

 

  1. I was rewatching Deep Space 9. Can I have your take on Sisko affectionately calling Jadzia Dax “old man”?
Jadzia Dax, a character from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She resembles a white woman with dark reticulations in two stripes that run along her hairline, neck, and collarbones.
Jadzia Dax.

If Jadzia Dax is taken as directly analogous to a regular human trans woman, her apparently regarding this moniker with equal affection is the only reason not to be angry at Sisko for using it. In this view, Dax becoming Jadzia would mean that the only respectful course would be for all of Jadzia’s friends who knew her as Curzon (or one of her previous names and forms) to revise how they speak about her in all contexts, including references to the past, to reflect her current state. Refusing to do so would be tantamount to refusing to accept the new name and form, which is an insult.

Trills, however, differ from human transgender people in a number of big ways. Very few of us, but most/all of them, regard each “pre-transition” name, gender, etc. as having been equally real, valid, welcome, and accurate. Trills themselves refer to their own previous incarnations with the names and pronouns to which those incarnations answered, and the non-symbiont half of a bonded Trill had their own independent existence prior to joining with a symbiont. In this view, Sisko’s use of the same term of endearment for both Curzon and Jadzia seems a totally reasonable and even oddly heartwarming callback to previous good times.

DS9 did explore the idea that each Trill host-symbiont pair might be regarded as a discrete entity, such that Jadzia Dax and Curzon Dax, despite both having been (or being) host to the same symbiont Dax and despite Jadzia sharing Curzon’s memories, don’t represent a transition in the life of a single person. This seemed mostly like a legal exercise to get Jadzia Dax out of trouble with the Kingons, and does not appear to be a view Jadzia Dax shares, so it probably should not affect how one views the relationship between Curzon Dax, Jadzia Dax, and Benjamin Sisko.

One’s feelings on this matter fundamentally relate to whether one views the Trills as a tool to allude to and explore issues that are also of relevance to transgender humans, or as an attempt to describe a gender system quite unlike humans’ and then explore its implications. As a direct reference to how human transgender people generally feel about and relate to our own experiences, the Trills fail badly, but their gender system is fascinating on its own. The analogy is still close enough, of course, that trans people still finding ourselves might see something familiar in Jadzia Dax’s accounts of what her inner life is like.

 

  1. As empress trans femme, what in your opinion is the best way for us transNBs to serve the gay agenda?

The best way is, trying not to draw attention away from the fact that transfeminine people (and racialized transfeminine people in particular) will always be the targets of the harshest anti-queer actions, because of what we represent to the kyriarchy, and keeping that in mind when determining how much space to occupy in intra-community conversations, public visibility, and organization hierarchies.

 

  1. Do you think the drag community fits under the Trans umbrella?

I think of it as a sort of halfway house for the trans community. A lot of trans women get their start in drag, because that community requires less commitment than being trans does and lets people try things out to see if they fit, but a lot of drag queens aren’t trans women. The extensive overlap between the two in the past is fading as transfeminine people feel freer and freer to be our actual selves, rather than live in hiding and deception. It is not a coincidence that cis people in the drag community are often grossly transmisogynistic.

 

  1. Sort of related, I guess; how have your interactions (if any) been with the older generation of trans women who sort of grew up being read by society as being on a continuum of gay men/drag queens?

Somewhat awkward. There are terminological challenges between the generations, and there is a sense that many in the older set envy how it doesn’t take nearly the resources it once did to achieve better results than they could dream. It is also much easier for modern trans women (and especially trans women who aren’t sexually interested in men) to grow up without any real sense of kinship with gay men, which has changed the internal dynamics of the overall queer community in ways that this older set is still figuring out. I’ve encountered a few who seem to vacillate between speaking of themselves as if they were gay men and speaking of themselves as if they were straight women, with their transfemininity prominent either way. This same set can also resent being called or thought of as “straight,” despite being self-identified women who are sexually interested only in men, because of this relationship to the older gay male community. It’s all rather disorienting, especially when modern language would address the peculiar space these people inhabit much more effectively. I’ve had it suggested that the hazy boundary between trans men, butch lesbians, and non-binary people can sometimes operate at a similar level of confusion.

 

  1. How do you feel about OC Transpo? You know, being that they’ve appropriated the word trans and are awful all at the same time.

I resent profoundly that the process of using an OC Transpo service has more steps than “wait for Vehicle in appropriate place. Get on Vehicle. Later, get off Vehicle.” I particularly resent that, instead of moving toward that Only Right Way To Do Public Transit, You Assholes, they have installed even more advanced and expensive fare-management tech. But I quite like trains, so it’s hard to be all the way angry.

 

  1. When you share a story of experiencing transphobia, should I comment my support for you on your wall, or leave that for your other queer and/or trans friends? I specifically mean you, by the way. I don’t want to be Patronizing Cis “Ally,” but I would like to offer comfort/support as best I can.

Support is welcome. Keep in mind that some common expressions for situations like this, such as “welcome to womanhood,” are most emphatically not helpful.

 

  1. What would have been helpful to you as a young child?

One of my aims as a blogger is to be the person I wish had been around for me. So, a fair number of my essays are, intentionally, things I wish people had told me when I was small. In particular, this, this, and this are messages you should keep in reserve for when your own descendants might need them.

 

  1. Top three things you wish allies would do more for trans people?

I am so, so very glad you asked!

1) Be extra careful with “body positive” memes around trans people, against whom “just be happy the way you already are!” rhetoric is a common weapon.

2) Check themselves and their own snipes at conservative women for femmephobia, anti-sex-work sentiments, and other issues that frequently intersect with being a trans woman in particular.

3) Hire us to speak at events, in meatspace or digitally. Seriously. < opens wallet, the moths in wallet open their wallets, smaller moths come out, those moths are also broke. >

 

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Answers for Trans Day of Visibility Questions

4 thoughts on “Answers for Trans Day of Visibility Questions

  1. 1

    Hi from a fellow trans person. This is all great stuff. As a big fan of Deep Space Nine, I especially appreciated the commentary on Dax and the Trills.

    Just a small but important correction: The black trans woman (or drag queen as she called herself then) at Stonewall was named Marsha P. Johnson, not Jackson.

  2. 2

    Your assessment of being trans as having a massive endocrine disorder has reassured me, because my cischet self has been seeing it the same way, and I’ve never heard anyone else describe it as such. Your brain says you’re a woman. Your body didn’t develop that way, because of hormones. Seems straightforward to me, but then I think of myself as being a brain-driven body; what my brain thinks I am is fundamentally *me* (except that it thinks I’m still a physically healthy age 25, not a badly damaged age 57, but that’s a different issue 🙂 ).

    I find your discussion of terms like ‘femme’ and ‘butch’ interesting. Again, coming from my background, they are not terms I use, because I’ve always had the sense that there were subtleties to them that I don’t understand. A woman (trans or not) who exhibits the behaviors you identify as ‘femme’, I would probably describe with “oh, she’s very classically feminine.” Would that be a fair description and an acceptable statement? (For a man or someone who is non-binary, I would use the appropriate pronoun.)

    1. 2.1

      Gender is more complicated than my somewhat breezy assessment suggests. I find that model amply suited to my own experience, but trans people with less or different levels of dysmorphia and dysphoria feel differently about their bodies and, often, do not seek the full suite of possible realignments that modern medicine offers.

      Those are appropriate statements.

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