Thursday, June 12, 2008

why can't you just...

One of my favorite bloggers had this to say recently, about reading "Nobody Passes:"

'An unexpected side effect of reading about FTM transsexuals was that I got kind of nostalgic for the concept of "butch," and wished there were more room inside the "female" label to express different looks and identities. I have no doubt that transgender people need to transition, but it's sort of abstractly sad, to my idealistic brain, that their gender expression couldn't be happily accommodated inside their original body because of society's uptight binary system. Oh never mind, I am probably just bringing my feminine-appearing, 65% straight woman baggage to this topic, and I should shut up before some reader takes all this out of context and accuses me of hate speech. '

As usual, she makes me laugh and nod with her insight and spot-on commentary, even when it's insight into a mildly (mildly!) offensive thing that she herself has said.

This is a trope that I've heard fairly frequently among non-trans folks, usually women, usually in regards to transmasculine folks (for some reason, it's never transwomen who should try to push the boundaries of what it means to be male, but almost always transmen who should be content pushing the envelope as butch/masculine women). It comes down to some variation of 'why can't you just be happy the way you are,' a question which, when uttered by someone who IS happy the way they are, doesn't inspire me to much creativity in response. Because I'm not.

And you know, not only am I not happy, I'm not even "the way I am." That is to say, such questions sound to me like "Why can't you just stay a masculine woman?"

I was not a masculine woman- I know that's what I was perceived as, how I was mis-labeled for a while, even by myself, but that's not what I was. I'm not Emma, I'm Eli, and I'm not a masculine woman, I'm a slightly genderqueer guy. So, why can't I just stay a masculine women? Really, the question is, why can't you just keep looking like a masculine woman?

Well, because clearly, everyone seems to have conflated those two questions. I was tired of being misconstrued as female, and the only way to stop being misconstrued as female is to stop looking female. That's not to say that this transition was strictly for the benefit of others- it was for the benefit of myself and my mirror, as well. I can't say, though, how much of my own need for a male body is influenced by what I believe (courtesy of my socialization in the aforementioned 'uptight binary system' our culture) a male body needs to look like. It's possible that if we didn't have such an uptight binary system, I wouldn't have felt the need to pursue physical transition. Or heck, maybe I wouldn't even have felt the need to request masculine pronouns, etc. But, we do have it, and I did (do) feel the need, and regardless of the etiology of that need, it is valid.

Which leads me to another point, which is the diversity of needs of people along the "transmasculine spectrum" aka, those of us assigned female at birth who feel that does not accurately define us. Some of us need to transition, some don't, and those of us who do have a variety of needs with regards to how best to bring about that transition. This has lead to plenty of folks suggesting that there ought to be less 'umbrella'-ing going on, since transsexuals often have a different set of needs and experiences than transgender folks or genderqueer folks, which is a topic for another time, but certainly continues to problematize the notion that trans(masculine) people as a whole could somehow be better served if there were more wiggle room inside the box marked F.

Which leads me to yet another point, that being, at least as is often the case for FTM folks, a conflation of 'butch' with 'male.' I'm not particularly butch, nor have I ever been. Boyish, yes. Masculine, always. But butch? I like chopping wood and grilling and lifting heavy things and I take a manly pride/joy in doing such things. And I try to be a gentleman, and I'm more taciturn than most women. But I've never had quite the kind of strong silence, nor the open shouldered stride that marks a butch person. (usually! watch me try not to be TOO reductive in my generalization!)

I have a nuanced gender identity, with all sorts of traditionally feminine shadings in my masculinity. And it was transitioning that enables me to express that properly now, so that I'm now longer tagged a butch women in my ill-fitting female body.

Anyway. All this to say that, while I certainly don't consider her words 'hate speech,' Mimi's expressed a sentiment that I have heard before, and am rather tired of hearing, particularly because it always strikes me the same way- a gut reaction based upon a misinterpretation.

That said, I can sympathize with her to a slight extent. There are times when I find it a bit sad that I wasn't born with a male body that would've smoothed the path for my lavender tinged boyhood-into-young-manhood. Or that I wasn't born with a gender identity which could've made a comfortable home in my body when it was still factory equipped, so to speak. I certainly find it wearying and sometimes sad to wrestle with the ways in which being trans makes my life harder. (Having babies, worrying about disclosing/safety, etc, etc) But I also find it to have been an interesting and ultimately warding journey. I feel lucky to have experienced things that few men have, and to be able to use those experiences to offer me insight into navigating our heavily gendered society.

And I definitely give her props for being, as usual, one step ahead and acknowledging the impact of her statement. Way to recognize your own cissexist privilege! (perhaps because she's already read Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano?)

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

gender expression:
there are some men who are naturally inclined to be feminine, and others who are naturally inclined to be masculine. feminine men don't have to see themselves as any less male, do they?

gender identity:
there are some men who are told at birth that they are female. men assigned female don't have to think of themselves as any less male, do they?

if your blogger friend woke up tomorrow with a male body, but was the same person inside, I think she'd be a bit upset about that, don't you?

then why is it so hard for her to understand that for many this is about body dysphoria and identity, NOT "expression"?

sure, a pre-transition male may look like a butch woman to some who can't tell the difference.

but I have an Indian (subcontinent) friend who is frequently told that he looks Hispanic. can we see the offense here?

Anonymous said...

p.s. do you think she's aware that not all FTMs were once lesbians, and some have never been attracted to women? seems like a butch---butch-er---butchest---FTM thing she's got goin on there.

Liza said...

anon- I dont' think you can be "naturally inclined" to be feminine or masculine because they are both social constructs. They don't exist outside human cultures. They are learned behaviours.

If I woke up tomorrow in a man's body I'd be totally freaked out because it would be so wierd. I'd think I was trapped inside a sci fi movie. Other than that, no, I don't think I'd care that much. I'm not a big fan of men's bodies, but what the heck. As long as it was healthy and fit why should I care?

I really don't have much of an investment in gender one way or another. I've been butch, I've been femme. I try to mix it up at least yearly, if not daily, to stay flexible and amused.

Why be only one thing your whole life? Sounds boring. If I could go back and forth easily I'd be a man for a while, then a woman for a while etc. That sounds like fun.

Chemicals and surgery? Not so much. I'll just stay flexible my own way.

Eli said...

Liza, with all due respect...that's easy for you to say.

"as long as I was healthy and fit, why should I care?"

that's the ticket- when I was 'in the wrong body' and struggling with gender dysphoria, I was NOT healthy and fit. It's not like I was a perfectly healthy woman in a perfectly fine female body, and I just decided it'd be more fun to be a guy.

Have you read 'whipping girl' by Julia Serano? It's a great read, and it points out that one of the things non-trans (or cissexual) folks have the hardest time understanding is what it's like being dysphoric. Without an understanding of what it's like being misgendered, and living with a physical body that's in conflict with one's subconscious sex, it's all too easy to say "Oh yeah! That's be fun for a while!"

Which is not to say that it's the same for everyone, of course- all trans* folks have different degrees of dysphoria and different coping mechanisms for dealing with that dysphoria.

But I want to say that your words, while undoubtedly true for you and probably (hopefully) well intended, come across as awfully dismissive and pretty privileged/entitled.

Liza said...

Hey Eli, I think - I hope - I was responding to your commenter who implied that femininity was natural. I don't think that femininity or masculinity is natural - they are cultural constructs.

And I don't think everyone would be upset to wake up as the "opposite" sex, at least not once the initial shock wore off. For one thing, that fantasy kind of implies that on another day you would wake up where you started, and maybe keep switching back and forth.

It was the Orlando-esque gender jumping that appealed to me. I do think it could be fun and fascinating not to be tethered to a gender.

I meant no disrespect to you or your life story. I think your blog is wonderful and you seem like a really thoughtful, smart and fun person. And you're a good writer, which counts for a lot.

Eli said...

Hey Liza, thanks for writing back! The idea of switching about like Orlando does sound like fun, in a 'thought experiment' kind of way.

As for the gender as social construct thing, I have to admit, I'm a bit conflicted. I used to be 100% right with you on that one, and I still do think that it's undeniable that the values we assign to masculinity and femininity are definitely products of our society, etc.

And I don't want to advocate any line of reasoning that resembles "biology is destiny."

But I'm starting to feel more and more like there's a middle ground somewhere between essentialist notions of being "naturally masculine" and totally postmodern notions of constructed gender.

As you can tell, I don't really have my thoughts on the matter articulated, but I hope you'll keep reading/commenting, and inspiring me to sort out what I think!

cheers,
Eli

naginata said...

This is a really interesting discussion. I grew up with an eating disorder and severe body dysphoria and I can understand the disconnect in trying to explain to someone how that feels. I think for most people they think a lot of people with body dysphoria have some sort of choice in how their brain works. For me it was not an issue of choice it was just how I am.

Anonymous said...

I tried to read and understand this, but I kept tripping on the terminology and then I got dizzy :)

But I just want to say, do what you have to do to be happy!

Priya said...

hi - i came here from mimi's journal.

i, too, was a little confused by the terminology. but that doesn't make your discussion any less fascinating.

thanks for writing this post. it was very informative and interesting!

Bonnie said...

I also came here from Mimi's journal. I live in Portland so it's cool to see that you come from here.

I am thoroughly confused by the terminology :) I have wanted to learn more about this for a while, though, and I'm going to keep reading your blog. Also, you have excellent writing skills.

I also have a certain amount of body dysphoria that is a result of a lifetime of torment about my weight. I've lost 50 pounds and still look overweight even though I'm in pretty good shape now. So while I don't have any idea what it would be like to live in the wrong body in terms of gender, I live in the wrong body in terms of my physical fitness, and this situation has far reaching effects into many aspects of my life.

Anyway, thanks for this post and I look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

came here from M's journal also...though interestingly enough, we just read Julia Serano's book at our bookgroup, and I was just getting ready to ask if you'd read it too.

As a queer (and somewhat genderqueer) female, I wrestled with some of the things she had to say, felt like she turned a huge lightbulb on for me with others. I'm still parsing out my thoughts, but wanted to say thanks for giving me more food for thought.

I feel like it's complicated, because like the straight world, there's a whole spectrum of opinions and thoughts and approaches, and one person can't speak for everyone, no? but teasing it all apart definitely can lead to greater understanding...I know that's what I'm trying for as I think about it all!

Melissa said...

I know you said you didn't mean to be reductive, but I'm a bit bugged by your comment about "butchness" (for lack of a better term), especially contrasted to your next sentence (that your gender is nuanced).

The "strong silence, etc." is a stereotype. There are as many ways to be butch as there are butches, and I've never actually met one of these butches that are so much talked about.

So, some questions:

what is it about being butch that is so "other"? Especially folks that are themselves masculine of center? The same "strong, silent, physically tough, aggressive" tropes come up again and again in reference to how butches "are" or are supposed to be. How did so much impossible-to-live-up-to baggage get attached to "butch"?

And one final comment:

It can be said that living butch is in fact living a more nuanced gender, existing as it does outside of the "uptight binary."

Melissa said...

I meant to say

What is it about being butch that is so "other"? Especially to folks that are themselves masculine of center?

Dana said...

Another from Mimi's blog :D

A+ for your post, my reply is just to share my experiences rather than to argue anything.

I always find the concept of body dysphoria fascinating because I am a more-hetero-than-homo bi woman who is in a relationship with a man and is only butch by the most stringent of standards, yet I've always strongly resented my sex. It's not just being treated differently or patronised, I hate being perceived as female regardless of how I am treated.

Perhaps if changing sex were less complicated and incomplete I would have a sex change, but I do not see myself as transgendered because surely if I were it would be more important to me to have the correct body than the possession of a perfect penis or masculine stature.

Sometimes I hate my body, and have spent long periods of time filled with unhappiness and self-loathing at being stuck as a woman, that despite being strong and fast I'll never be as strong or fast as someone with my genes but XY chromosomes. It's taken me until fairly recently to be willing to admit to any femininity or wear makeup and I'm still extremely sensitive and stir quickly to excessive rage when an opinion is labelled as being such because I'm female, or people are nicer to me because I'm a woman.

But I think for me it is entirely because I hate being pre-judged, no matter whether that prejudice is positive or negative, rather than not being cis. I am not transgendered but I have come to realise I resent my existence as female far more than most women, no matter how "butch". I enjoy makeup occasionally and my ability to touch and flirt with both sexes, but I do not like being a woman, and I've realised that most of the women I like and respect do.

I'm learning to live with it but I know I will never be truly comfortable in this body. So I guess I am the woman people like Mimi are talking about - whereas you are simply a man :)

Dangerspouse said...

Neither Mimi nor you ever seem to take into consideration the feelings of men who identify as men and are trapped in mens bodies.

The constant self satisfaction does nothing but overwhelm one with lifelong destructive feelings of ennui and complacency. Who writes books about US? Who organizes marches on OUR behalf in the Meat Packing district?

*sigh*

So alone. So very, very alone. My huge muscles weep with the injustice.....

Eli said...

For those of you who are confused by the terminology, is there anything in particular you're confused by? I'd be happy to try to answer questions, or clarify...

To those who responded with stories of their own fraught relationships with their bodies, thank you for sharing your experiences! Body dysphoria can take many forms, some of it more socially acceptable or more common than others, but it's hard for all of us, and I appreciate the commiseration, and the insights.

Eli said...

Hey Melissa, I really appreciate your comment on butchness.

You're right, I didn't mean to be reductive, but I was. It seems the terminology always fits better on the other side of the fence! By which I mean, I was trying to express how 'butch' is sometimes used in reductive or misleading ways, reducing a complex panoply of female masculinity to a certain unfeminine persona.

There is a distinct lack of terminology for female masculinity, so anyone who is perceived to be female but not feminine gets described as butch.

But some of us aren't butch, we're just not female! I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but part of why it's "other" to me is because I've been mislabeled as butch too often. I'm actually a fairly nelly fellow, but when my masculinity was being perceived as coming from a female, then I had to be 'butch.'

I certainly didn't mean to imply that butch is not a nuanced gender, just the the nuances of my gender were being overlooked when people were reading me as female.

I'm not sure where the butch narrative originated. I do know folks who fit the strong silent tropes to a T, a proudly, and others who are unconventional butch.

I do think there's a certain danger in trying to broaden or deconstruct terms to such an extent that they lose their meaning...at what point does an unconventionally butch person stop being butch...what does butch even mean? If it doesn't just mean "strong 'n silent" then what DOES it mean?

Which leads me, one way or another, to my last point, which is to say I have to disagree when you say

It can be said that living butch is in fact living a more nuanced gender, existing as it does outside of the "uptight binary."

Being butch, or visibly genderqueer, or visibly transfeminine are all genders which require plenty of courage and fortitude, because such folks get less privilege and more crap from the world at large. But I'm very wary of saying that any particular gender is 'more nuanced' than another- part of why I'm glad you commented.

I don't wish to imply that butchness or any other variety of masculinity is more nuanced or complex (or any of the other value judegments that might so easily go along! better, more valid, more noble, etc) than any other...all of us have complex genders, that come with complex needs and requirements.

Ali H said...

Oh I love following links from awesome diaries, to find awesome blogs at the other end, where exciting conversations go on about gender identity. Go the internet!

Melissa says: "The "strong silence, etc." is a stereotype. There are as many ways to be butch as there are butches, and I've never actually met one of these butches that are so much talked about."

Eli says: "You're right, I didn't mean to be reductive, but I was. It seems the terminology always fits better on the other side of the fence! By which I mean, I was trying to express how 'butch' is sometimes used in reductive or misleading ways, reducing a complex panoply of female masculinity to a certain unfeminine persona.

There is a distinct lack of terminology for female masculinity, so anyone who is perceived to be female but not feminine gets described as butch."

Every self-identifying butch I know has a story about how she deviates from this mythical butch ideal. Every femme I know spins the same story about how she's not like the other femmes. When you're looking at it from this close, the deviation is greater than the commonality. But the commonality still exists, the gender is still present and real.

But it's so hard, when the language is so limited by gender normality, to express the difference between trans maleness and butch femaleness without sounding like you're downplaying the validity of 'butch'. Part of the problem is obviously that there isn't much positive language to use to describe butchness so we describe it in negatives instead, which sounds reductive and dismissive even when it's not meant to be.

Meg said...

So I apologize if any of what I say is fairly ignorant- I, too, followed Mimi's blog here and I'm not at all familiar with the terminology of this topic.

I'm a girl, have been all my life. There have been times throughout my life when I have very strongly felt that I would prefer to be a boy, but I've never felt like I WAS a boy. I consider myself to be heteroflexible (mostly attracted to men but not repulsed by the idea of being with females), but I also think that if I were a guy I would be a straight guy.

I grew up liking boy toys better than girl toys, boy sports better than girl sports, boy relationship roles better than girl relationship roles, and I always felt like I preferred the male role, but it was never that I felt I WAS a boy...

I get the feeling that this is different from the body dysphoria that people reference, but I can't quite define how- but I think that maybe the feeling of wanting to be masculine in some ways without actually feeling like you actually are a different gender is more of what she was going for?

Melissa said...

Eli: "But I'm very wary of saying that any particular gender is 'more nuanced' than another-"

No, you're right. I think I was making a rhetorical point rather than being sincere with that particular remark.

Ali: "When you're looking at it from this close, the deviation is greater than the commonality. But the commonality still exists, the gender is still present and real."

What a great comment! Very perceptive.

Personally, I don't think I'm so different from other femmes, but I do think I'm different from a straight woman, which is what many take me for. So I have some visibility issues. Some marginalization and "hierarchy of queerness" issues.

But I think femme, at least the way I manage it, is gendered. Genderqueer, really, if subverting traditional femininity counts.

Dana said...

Hey Meg - I certainly don't presume to speak for Eli or anyone truly transgender as I'm probably closer in experience to you than a transperson.

Nonetheless I have always had a strange feeling of not being a woman, and it's quite infuriating sometimes. I hate being perceived as female, and by that I don't mean being perceived as feminine - truly, sometimes when people say something to me that is relevant to my femaleness I have an instinctive reaction of "what? I'm not a woman!" And have to remind myself that I am.

It's like, inside me I do not identify with either sex but I identify more closely with masculine traits so am often surprised and disappointed when I am reminded (even by touching myself!) that I am in fact a woman.

So I imagine true dysphoria is that x1000!

gemini6ice said...

I get cysts on my scrotum and shaft. They are wrong, foreign things that ARE INCORRECT.

My understanding of gender dysphoria is that one's entire physical sex is INCORRECT. I have issues with the labelling of it as a mental illness, however; to me, calling it a mental illness implies that the mental perception of the person is skewed rather than the person's bdy.

Anonymous said...

i got here from mimi, too. i think her comment was less about transgenders and more about being afraid for what her own "unfeminine" daughter may face later in life.
masculine and feminine should not be confused with male and female, that's for sure. because male and female are not "learned" concepts - as david reimer proved, i think. so strange that body dysphoria can house such strange bedfellows as anorexic behaviors and transgender associations, but it does. i experienced a bit of the former and still get some of the latter, but neither to a debilitating (read: requiring medical intervention) degree, thank God. i can understand why someone without it wouldn't be able to "get" BD because i have it and i don't understand it myself. how can i look in a mirror at the same face i've seen for 33 years and not recognize it as the me i am inside? why do i sometimes hate the feel of a man inside me when i usually love it so much? why do i sometimes wish when i look between my legs that there was a penis there?

Bonnie said...

"I dont' think you can be "naturally inclined" to be feminine or masculine because they are both social constructs. They don't exist outside human cultures. They are learned behaviours."

I disagree with this 100%. 'Male' and 'female' and many of their associated traits are biological facts in every animal, including humans. Personal sexual oreientation is also mostly biological.. there's a mix between nature and nurture of course, but no one is quite sure of the degree.

Anonymous said...

You throw like a girl?

Eli said...

Anon, about the throwing like a girl...are you refering to my baseball/softball skills?

I don't actually know what "throw like a girl" means. I know that it can mean "throw poorly" and I know it can also mean a specific kind of mechanics to one's throw, and while I don't think I throw poorly, I don't know whether the mechanics of my throw are more "girl"-like or "boy"-like.

Katherine said...

Wow, this is amazing. About a week ago, a friend of mine told me she/he (which one is right? I don't know yet, but I'm trying to find out) is starting the transition from male to female. And since then it seems I've done nothing on the internet but trip from one brilliant post about and by transgendered people to another.

I loves the internets, and I love this post. Thanks.

CanuckChick said...

"I don't actually know what "throw like a girl" means. I know that it can mean "throw poorly" and I know it can also mean a specific kind of mechanics to one's throw, and while I don't think I throw poorly, I don't know whether the mechanics of my throw are more "girl"-like or "boy"-like."

Throwing from your elbow is throwing 'like a girl'. Throwing from your shoulder is throwing 'like a boy'. Easiest way to think about it, really.

Anonymous said...

HELP!! My history is I want to molest children who are too young to speak.
Just like I did my brothers.

How many times did military pilot suck that little boy's dick? How many times did that pedophile suck that child's penis?? Confused how prostitution works, he let the boy drive his car if the boy let him copulate him. He left the neighborhood before the boy "came of age" so a homosexual pedophile he remains for life. He turned all his brothers into "givers", and one went on to a period of exhibited homosexuality. This mentally ill career military wants his son to have the car in which he first sucked prepubescent penis.
Is there a connection with the transsexual clue with his "wife"?? Is it connected or is this a separate dysfunction?
Was he ever tested? He had a period of sexual promiscuity after enlistment in an attempt to prove he was a man, desperate to erase his history. Did you ever send an attractive tranny to see if he would take the bait?? He did:::His wife!!!
You can only imagine what the military's scathing evaluation of his dysfunctional personality had to say, not to mention what his fellow pilots thought. He had no business being there.
The greeks don't want no freaks. Should have killed himself like he was invited to in his movie.
The pedophile wants to reach up her dress and fondle her penis.