Roots: Passing

What is “passing” exactly?

Most people have at least a vague concept of what passing means in reference to trans people. If you ask one of us, we’ll describe a myriad of meanings, as passing means something different to each of us based on our personal experiences with the act.

If you listen to many of our stories, a common theme will most certainly emerge that looks something like this:

Passing is a euphoric refuge from a dysphoric experience in a transphobic world.

It allows us to let our guard down and enjoy simply being ourselves, fully equipped with the privilege of being interpreted as cissexual when we are in fact transsexual, which allows us freedom of societal mobility and safety from the forces that would disparage us if we were recognized as trans.

That’s the unfortunate state of things for transfolk. We lead a quite frankly terrifying existence which is very often dependent on passing. We are forced into strict gender conformity, the likes of which I haven’t seen imposed since the 1950s. If we stray from it, we risk losing our ability to pass, which can have devastating consequences for us. This goes for transmen and transwomen alike, though the box women are expected to fit into is decisively smaller and more restrictive than that of men.

Our critics might tell us that we are reinforcing an oppressive system by adhering to these standards and attempting to pass, but what needs to be understood is that it’s something we tend toward in order to survive within said system. It’s the same for all people, trans or not. We all tend to adhere to our prescribed standards in order to survive in our societal systems around the world. Challenging them, for most any of us, can be dangerous. We could lose our livelihood. Our social support structures could collapse. Our families and friends could abandon us.

Why? Just because we’ve decided to dress differently or live our lives in a way more appealing to us?

Why do we put so much importance on these prescribed standards in our existences? I’m not going to claim to have any answers. This question is far bigger than me, but I do think it’s an important question to ask. At the very least, I think we all need to examine the qualities of these standards and be willing to challenge them in our daily lives, especially where they intersect with freedom of mobility and equality of opportunity.

Passing should not be a prerequisite to our freedoms, rights, or privileges. We should all be allowed to express ourselves, free from disparagement for methods of expression we might find suitable to ourselves in our embodied lives.

What if we could live in a world free from transphobia, where being trans weren’t something we need to hide?

My particular corner of the world has been kind to me. I’ve not encountered much, if any transphobia in my life. I pass well and am lucky to live in a largely trans-friendly community. I’m out in all aspects of my life. My family knows. Everyone I’m friends with knows. My coworkers know. It’s become something I feel comfortable with being and sharing with others in my life.

It wasn’t always that way for me though.

I was born in Mike Pence’s hometown. If you know anything at all about the man, understand that his hometown is very much like him. The majority are conservative, Christian, and love America. The sort of people who listen to country music. Radio stations blared Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America” every Independence Day. Nice folks, mostly.

But they don’t tend to like change.

Transitioning there was terrifying. Between circumstances where I lived and deep concerns over how my family would react, I didn’t come out much until I was 28 when I finally allowed myself to begin Hormone Replacement Therapy. Only my most trusted friends and partners knew I intended to transition.

To my surprise, everyone in my life accepted me, and living as a trans woman was easy because I passed well. I can only imagine how different my life might have been if I hadn’t been able to. It’s granted me so much privilege.

I had the privilege to allow the fact I am trans to disappear and live free from fear of the kind of discrimination transfolk face every day.

And I did.

For around 5 years, only those I had known prior to transition actually knew I was trans. In my day to day life, I was interpreted in the same way as every other woman. When I started the job that led me to my current career, I never came out. No one I worked with knew for several years. We’ll come back to this later.

Being a woman of course came with its own pitfalls and perils. I’ve been a survivor of a constant stream of misogyny, sexual assault, manipulation, discrimination, etc. I’ve been terribly unlucky.

But at least I wasn’t seen as trans for most of it.

Passing was never not important in my mind.

Even when I’d speak out as a trans woman in real life or on social media, I would insist I was a woman and engage in completely pointless arguments with others over it.

“Trans women are men,” cried anti-trans activists.

“Trans women are women,” we cried back, as the phrase became my mantra.

My invocations of this mantra were less a response to the assertion I was a man, and more a desperate effort to pass on a completely different level.

Being trans didn’t matter much to my real life. As I said, in my daily life I was just a woman. And I wanted it to not matter in any context. I wanted the fact I am trans to disappear into the fact I was read as a woman. I rejected my own complex reality as a trans woman and instead opted to erase the idea the word “trans” carried any meaning that I saw as potentially invalidating my womanhood. It was a point I was completely unwilling to capitulate. It was as important to me as passing itself.

I would make arguments such as, “Trans women and tall women are both women,” as if “tall” carried a similar meaning to “trans”.

But in the case of both trans women and tall women, tall women are still tall, and trans women are still trans. Being trans is as inescapable for me as being tall might be for a tall woman.

Trans, I realized, was something I could never not be, rage against my own biology and societal resistance to the idea as I might.

The inevitable conclusion for me was acceptance that trans women, are in fact, trans women. Once I accepted this truth, doorways opened for me that allowed me to see and appreciate the truly complex reality of my embodied life. The truth was simultaneously beautiful and terribly ugly. I’ve become so much more sensitive to the concerns of others when my complex reality intersects and interplays with their own.

Some of my trans friends and allies have expressed concern for me over my change in attitude, but I can assure everyone my head has never been more clear. As I’ve explained, it’s been a long road for me coming to acceptance of myself as a trans woman, and it feels wonderful to take pride in the fact I am exactly what I am.

My co-workers all know now that I’m trans, and the context under which I came out to them is very much part of my journey toward this newfound level of self-acceptance.

A little bit over a year ago, another co-worker of mine who works in a different area came out and transitioned. One night, co-workers in my area were talking about her and saying some very transphobic things.

It wasn’t easy, but as one co-worker was beginning to talk about his experiences with the one trans person he’s known in his life who rubbed him the wrong way, I interrupted and told him he in fact, knows two. His stunned silence spoke volumes.

I’ve come out in similar contexts to others I work with, and every time it has had overwhelmingly positive effects. Transphobia, at its heart, is a fear of change. People get used to people as they are, and then when they transition, it’s like that person they’ve known dies and something strange and new replaces them.

What my co-workers have realized about their own transphobia is exactly that. I’ve asked several, “Having known me as a woman for years, would it be equally as difficult for you to accept me if I detransitioned and became a man as it is for you to accept transitioning people you know?” The answer has been, “Yes.” in every instance.

My coming out and proudly telling others that I was, in fact, a trans woman completely washed away any transphobia that my co-workers might have held in their hearts.

One day, I would like to see all of society overcome transphobia.

Where visibly trans people and passing trans people can live with the same freedom of mobility and equality of opportunity.

Where trans women can be trans women and trans men can be trans men and live in relative peace with ourselves as such.

Where our lives, be they trans lives or not, no longer depend on passing.

RE: RuPaul and the Participation of Women in Drag Race

An exploration of the recent controversy behind RuPaul’s commentary on bio queen and transgender women’s participation in RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Last week, RuPaul told The Guardian, “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it, because at its core it’s a social statement and a big f-you to male-dominated culture. So for men to do it, it’s really punk rock, because it’s a real rejection of masculinity.”

In this statement, it is made clear that what are sometimes referred to as “faux queens” or “bio queens” are not welcome to participate in RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In a followup question, Decca Aitkenhead of The Guardian asked, “So how can a transgender woman be a drag queen?”

To which RuPaul responded, “Mmmm. It’s an interesting area. Peppermint didn’t get breast implants until after she left our show; she was identifying as a woman, but she hadn’t really transitioned.”

Decca continued, “Would you accept a contestant who had? ”

“Probably not. You can identify as a woman and say you’re transitioning, but it changes once you start changing your body. It takes on a different thing; it changes the whole concept of what we’re doing. We’ve had some girls who’ve had some injections in the face and maybe a little bit in the butt here and there, but they haven’t transitioned.”

In a followup tweet which has sparked a great deal of outrage, RuPaul tweeted:

Before I speak to this topic, let me just go ahead and deplatform myself immediately in establishing that I am an outsider to queen culture.

Queen culture is something I have always avoided association with because I have never liked having who I am conflated with what I (and many others) have perceived as a male-exclusive form of artistic expression.

My life as a trans woman is not art nor entertainment for anyone.

I do not want to be on display. In fact, I want the opposite. I want to be myself and live a normal life free from the distress of being forced to live the life of a gender that I am not.

That distinction isn’t easy for many people to make. Just yesterday, an anti-trans activist compared me with Divine, who is best known for their role in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos.

We are not the same.

Avoiding that conflation has led me to avoid appreciation of the expression of the drag artform. I recognize myself as an outsider to this culture and approach my criticism to it as such.

As would be the case with any form of artistic expression, I feel that biologic sex should not matter in the expression of the form. Exclusion of women from queen expression strikes me as similar to excluding women from forms of artistic expression such as writing, painting, music, acting, comedy, etc.

One might say that women have the option to participate in king culture and to create caricatures of men to put on display on their own art, but it’s really not the same, and bio queens very much do exist. As I have come to understand drag, it is more about the expression of extreme femininity in queen culture and extreme masculinity in king culture. It is less about biology and more about the portrayal of a caricature. As such, I do not see why it would be problematic for anyone, in spite of sex or gender, to express themselves as a queen/king or participate in a competition such as RuPaul’s Drag Race.

In a piece by Kashmira Gander of The Independent in which Kashmira, a female at birth, explored the concept of women’s participation in queen culture by, herself, undergoing transformation into expression of the form as a caricature known as Trashmira, Kashmira wrote, “But a question remained. How can a woman be a drag queen, when a drag queen is a man dressed as a woman? This issue has divided the drag community – with bio, or “faux”, queens defending their right to perform alongside their male counterparts. The answer comes down to the fact that drag is about more than just a man wearing a dress, but about questioning gender stereotypes and the norms we are expected to conform to – norms that can stifle us all – all while putting on a blinding show.”

This attitude has brought me to view the artistic intent of drag in an entirely different light. If attitudes like this were more embraced toward queen culture and women were openly welcomed to participate in drag competitions, I would personally begin to find queen culture far more appealing.

Many have been outraged by RuPaul’s exclusionary statements regarding trans women in particular. Initially, I was not offended because I viewed queen culture through the frame that it was a male-only form of expression, as RuPaul himself appears to believe. But I then began to think about how sexist that sounded, a “male-only form of expression” and I began to consider that perhaps it may be time to re-evaluate our perceptions of queen and king culture. The issue here seems to me to be less about trans-exclusion and more about female exclusion.

What exactly precludes women from the expression of themselves as queens?

What exactly precludes men from the expression of themselves as kings?

I’m not convinced these questions have valid answers. I can only speak for myself as an outsider who has never appreciated the form. The boundaries we might construct in answering these questions are a detriment to the form. If we can push these boundaries, I know that I personally will become much more interested in these forms of expression because, as is true in most things, diversity brings strength to forms.

A Leaf

A dead, green leaf drifting

Through sunshine waterfalls

Falling

From the brazen branch

 

 

[This is a quickie imagist poem I wrote  a long time ago, hope you’ve enjoyed it! I primarily just wanted to make a quick post to say I’ve re-categorized all my poetry to fit the theme of my blog and there’s now a dedicated section called Leaves to differentiate it from my Roots & Branches series. Updates for all are coming very soon!]

The Shack

We know the pen is mightier than the sword, but is the voice mightier than the gun? For what it’s worth, I hope so.

A boy and his gun

Were having some fun

When his dad got home from the army

He took him out back

They shot at his shack

And his dad went back in the morning

They repeated like that

Every year

Every time

A new piece of gear

 

His father was his hero of course

Three tours in Iraq

But more than that

A fourth one he feared

A fourth one to take his dad from his years

 

But he taught him how to respect his guns

And how to shoot and how to have fun

He taught him how to shoot at that shack

Just like his dad had shot in Iraq

 

And then when his parents divorced

And his dad left them

Alone for the course

He had to support his mom

And he said, “I’ll get a gun to protect you mom.”

“I swear.”

 

He struggled as he worked

From store to store

Longing for a weapon

To fight his own wars

But he never got one

He couldn’t afford

Because his mom needed surgery

And there was this girl, who worked at the store…

 

He wanted to provide for them

To control his own ward

Where he’d keep and protect them

And guard from the porch

When they came

He’d pull out his gun

And ward off his ward

To protect his sons

 

But he couldn’t afford one

And so he lost his girl at the store

And a few years later

His mother died too poor

 

His family gone

He now lived alone

Money problems over

He could finally afford

A gun like his father

Had taught him to sport

He’d finally be able

To fight his own wars

 

He got his gun

And he took it back

To where he’d learned to shoot

To shoot like in Iraq

He learned to fire

To care for and clean

His brand new, fully featured AR-15

Collapsible stock and quick magazine release

So he could shoot and protect his streets

And keep on shooting..

 

Modified to repeat repeat repeat

He shot that old shack ’til nothing was left but concrete

 

finally after the deed was done

on that same foundation

where he was cleaning his gun

he thought of his father

and remembered the fun

but his father was gone now

sixteen years weighed a ton

 

he wanted to cry then

but he held back his tears

his father had taught him

“real men don’t cry”

“their fire dries tears”

“they never give up:

they set fire to the world

and enchant the girls with

diamonds and pearls”

 

it was a valuable lesson

he held to its truth

though try

though he might

he cried like a fool

“my father was wrong..”

he thought

“…or might I not be a man?”

 

he stood up and shouldered his tool

to prove

his own truth in this war

to make things like they were before

 

he’d lost his father

and family to (((SJWs)))

who’d taken over his pews

and kept him their tool

he knew what to do

he’d strike at the source

he’d take his country back

and he’d take it by force

he’d stop all the marxists

their ideology

he’d take it all back

with his AR-15

 

and so he marched

with it strapped to his back

ready to shoot it

like he’d been taught by the shack

he took it over to district 67

and marched in the school at 11

 

he shot 7 teachers there dead

and fired 16 more shots

all of which missed

12 ricocheted and tore through the door

where a group of kids hid

twenty and

four

who were shot in cold blood

no way to escape

 

when he saw them lying there he felt

the tears come again

and the lies overcame him

like a bullet to the head

Cipher

go about your business–

there’s nothing to see here–

just a girl in a corner

looking for words–

words to teach of a new way

to see– and define things for

what they truly may be–

 

she’s so close to

meaning

but so far away–

maybe she’ll find it

some sane day

when she takes the time

to find the right rhyme

and the rest of the song

falls into place

 

but the rhyme doesn’t

matter– it only gets in the way

of the rest of the message

she’s grasping to say– to you–

you who she already told

to just go away–

watch some television

or some other thing–

get on Facebook–

look up some porn–

whatever you do

when you find yourself bored–

that’s what life’s about

for you– nothing greater–

nothing more

 

what have you done

to learn how to know

what’s happening– here and now–

what do you know about

the girl in the corner–

who’s writing these lies

about you down– nothing–

nothing, nothing she’d say–

there’s nothing to see here–

just go away

 

[Originally written, 2008]

The Paint

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here’s a poem I wrote with a broken heart.

you were the paint

in my blue, blue sky

the green of my trees

that green from my eyes

a brush stroke passed

and washed away

the blue, blue blends

and turned into gray

you were the paint

that made my world blend

the mix and the hue

that made my blood red

a dead dry brush

hardened by the paint

put to rest in water

soaked up the cup

you were the paint

yellow and scraped

across intangible lines

drawn around and draped

a drip drop dripped

tears down the canvas face

ruining the rhythm

purposing the pace

building down to nothing

the paint devoured all

and rolled up the color

into fat violet balls

you were the paint

that covered my world in fire

the all consuming orange

that blazed my desire

a dancing flame flickered

caught concocted copse

flirted with flesh

and licked the last drop

 

[Originally written, 2012]

The Devil’s Shape

A mix of prose and poetry describing psychological abuse and sexual assault. Not for the faint of heart.

The Bible is not meant to be read literally.

Nor is the title of this article.

This isn’t an article about the big red-horned fallen angel who supposedly hates God and rules over Hell.

Well, that’s a lie, it is.

But not literally.

This is an article about my own personal Satan.

In biblical sources, the Hebrew term satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity.
– Elaine Pagels, “The Origin of Satan,” 1995

It was then,

As I was a woman

All drawn out of shape,

That the Devil appeared

With its devlish smirk.

The Devil took me up by the mind

And told me its name

I’ve since forgotten it.

But I’ll never forget what it means.

The Devil came up from Kentucky.

I drove it here myself.

We met online.

We’d spent the several weeks previous texting and calling one another every day.

It was going so well.

I’d gone through a divorce about a year and a half  prior and I finally felt ready to date again. I’d dated one other guy briefly. He was nice, but not for me. We’ve maintained a friendship at least.

This time, it felt right.

We met for lunch and then I drove him up tour my hometown.

All throughout the day, everything was perfect. We got along every bit as well in person as we had electronically.

I decided to invite him back to my place.

He sat down, legs spread in my easy chair.

And then, his shape changed.

He became something else.

Satan revealed itself to me.

It said it was in love

With another woman,

drawn in its shape.

No one could ever love me

But as a waif.

It brought me to

The other side of the veil.

Showed me the void,

and took me to Hell.

It wanted to be called “daddy”

and called me its whore.

If I was a good girl

Maybe I could be more

Maybe it would take me down

For a spin upon its cock

And maybe it would unravel me

From this knitted sock.

The Devil took my shape that day,

And twisted its already twisted form.

Then twisted

and twisted

and twisted it more

And that’s the last thing I can tell you about that. The rest is one big blank I have ripped out of my mind. I honestly can’t tell you what followed.

I can only remember the terror of it.

Complete subversion. Total bewilderment. Utter disorientation.

What did I do? What choice did I have?

I like to think I stood up to it and overcame my adversary right then and there and threw it out of my house.

But I know that’s not what happened.

The nearest memory I have, I was driving again, on the road back to Kentucky.

The Devil’s shape wasn’t twisted anymore.

It was the same as before.

I thought about driving my car into the Ohio River.

The world would have been a better place if I did.

It haunted me for years after.

My mind was filled with monsters. The world was on fire.

Once you meet the Devil, it’s always with you.

It’ll never stop trying to rip you from Heaven and condemn you to Hell.

But, like any adversary, it can be overcome.

Like God, and like me, I hope you have angels to help if you ever meet it.

It was a long road to calling myself a survivor, but I’m lucky in that I had a very strong social support network in my life at the time. So many wonderful wounded women who had been through similar events helped me to overcome it.

They are all like sisters to me.

Their support taught me an important lesson. The devil can’t catch you if you’re smarter than it. And so that’s what I did, I became smarter than it. I poured myself into my work. I studied and worked harder than I’d ever known I was capable of and became crafty enough that the Devil couldn’t catch me anymore.

In a weird way, I’d like to thank the Devil.

I’m a much better person because of it.

But that would require forgiveness, and that’s not mine to give…

The devil almost had me fooled.

It knew the weaknesses of my shape

And exploited every one.

Its tricks twisted me

To its own twisted shape.

But I learned from its tricks

Some tricks of the trade.

I learned how to spin

To twist who I am

And I learned how to do it

Better than it

I learned how to shape

my words,

my body,

my thoughts,

my actions,

my movements,

my soul

To be impenetrable by the Devil

I’ve cast from my Throne.

Condemned,

to eternal shaplessness.

It taught me to shape

And how to forget.

It taught me survival

And the pain of it.

It taught me forgiveness…

and the truth therein:

Sometimes, it’s best left to God.

I hope the Devil’s somewhere praying.

The Devil can arrive at any moment

You don’t always hear its chime

It will try to change your shape

It will try it every time

And sometimes, if you let it

While you’re not watching your shape

It will take and take and take from it

And take,

and take,

and take..

The foolish thing in all this is

This twisted

twisted

twisted shape

This shape the Devil’s made of you

Is its own devilish shape

The only shape that matters is

The shape you make alone

The shape that you take with you

That pattern you follow

The shape you make is better

This shape is your own

It’s knitted

and drawn

And painted

and sewn

It’s battered

and bruised

and berated

and honed

It’s in the music you make

It’s in the sound of your voice

It tastes just like the taste of your tears

It’s woven into choice

It overcomes the worst you fear

It can bring your thoughts to cheer

It’s in the burden on your back

It’s the plan when you attack

It’s your guide

when nothing’s clear.

It’s written into the presence you have

And the way you make your way.

Next time Satan tries to twist it:

Overcome the meaning of its name.