Wednesday, February 27, 2008


As I was blearily scraping away at my face in her bathroom yesterday morning, Rochelle asked me where I'd learned to shave. I think the best I could come up with is " and there."

Now that I think about it, though, the history of my shaving education is quite an interesting amalgamation of knowledge. I remember only once as a kid being close to a grown man shaving his face, and that was during one brief visit with my Dad. It was at my aunt and uncle's house in Spokane, WA, actually, and he showed up with only a moustache, as opposed to his usual luxurious beard. The next morning, he was in the bathroom shaving, and he invited my sister and I both to "take the wheel" and lightly drag the flimsy plastic razor down his jaw. Both of us giggled nervously, a behavior we rarely indulged in under ordinary circumstances but that became more frequent around him. Anyway, I remember being very nervous that I was going to slice up his face, and I don't think I shave much more than the top edge of the lather, being too afraid to put any pressure on his skin.

Five or so years after that, my mom taught us how to shave our legs and armpits. Plenty of soap, rinse the razor frequently, careful near the shinbone. I have such dark hair that if I really wanted hairless legs, I had to shave at least every other day if not daily, and that really didn't last long. I kept the armpits up longer, but stopped that soon, too, as my willingness to do the upkeep dropped at a rate inversely proportional with my desire to fit in to normal female beauty standards.

The next thing I started shaving was my head, though I really only used an actual razor on it twice. Once my first year of college, when I eliminated my latest mohawk and then decided to go for the gold and "Bic it!" as the saying went. A hallmate told me I looked like "a thumb with glasses" and I decided it probably wasn't the look for me. But a few months later, just before leaving to return to SRC for my sophomore year, I went for another mohawk, and shaved the sides again. Again, I felt the strange too-smooth warmth of totally naked skin on my head, and let it grow back as quickly as possible.

Long before I started T, I used to have long dark hairs growing on my neck, around my Adam's apple area. I tweezed them for a while, but there were a lot of them and, wistful as I was about the thought of someday growing facial hair, scruffy neck patches weren't exactly what I had in mind. I used a little clipper marketed to women called a 'magic touch for unwanted body hair!' or something like that, and buzzed my neck once a week or so.

When I moved to NYC and decided to get my transition rolling, I decided to start shaving those hairs in a more manly fashion- I was grasping for as many straw to bolster my masculinity as I could, in those days. I bought a can of Barbasol and a 3 pack of Bic disposables, and felt pretty damn butch. I used it for months (since I never needed much at a time) to shave my straggly neck hairs, and sometimes also to shave off the 'peach fuzz' on my cheeks, I think partly as a feel-good ritual, and partly because I'd read that "women and children have peach fuzz-men don't! if you want to be seen as male, shave off the peach fuzz!"

Once I started T and really needed to start actually shaving, I decided to read up a bit on the subject. I found a few GQ articles in passing, and got some tips from this exceptionally useful FTM focused website. I also found and read this website, which gave some great tips and also instilled in me an as-yet-unfullfilled desire for my own double-edged safety razor and boar bristle brush.

Though I do actually have a brush- my aunt gave me a brush-and-cup set that she'd found at an antique store, and she and my mom both confirmed that it looks almost identical to the one their grandfather used to use. Apparently, he also had a ritual where he would finish shaving and then go around and kiss every woman in the house- wife, child, grandchild, neighbor over to borrow a cup of tea, whoever.

If and when I get myself a nicer razor and start using nice soap and brushes, I might have to pick up that family tradition.

In the meantime, I use Target brand mach-3 knock-offs, and use a new razor about once every 5-7 shaves. I got a few cans of shaving cream as presents for my manniversary party two years ago, and I'm still working my way through those. When I'm finished, I'll probably try to find something with a lower environmental impact- maybe something that isn't blue? I get some razor burn and irritation on my neck, too, and I'm thinking a nicer shave set up might help that situation. It's just another one of those things that I could probably do for myself right now, but have set away in my mind as Something to Do When I Grow Up. and who knows when that will be?

why so surprised?

So, file this one under "Situations related to my transition in which I try not to be irked and inevitably fail:"

I get annoyed when people react to my physical transition with surprise. When I went to karaoke a few weeks ago and Miss Jackie did a double take because she didn't recognize me with my facial hair, and then asked "Wow, what did you use, Rogaine?"

When I answered in the negative, she replied, astonished "That's from hormones? Wow!" and I was irked. Why are you so surprised? Didn't you expect me to look "like a guy" as my transition progressed? Oh, that's right, I forgot. You still think of me as a boyish girl person, and so you're surprised when you see me with the signs of "real" manhood, like big fluffy muttonchops. Though on second thought, the manliness of fluffy muttonchops might not be universally accepted. But I digress, and facial hair does pretty much signal "man" across the board. So it's irritating to me when people are surprised to find such a blatant 'male' signifier on me, because it says to me that they don't actually expect me to be a guy.

The reason I try not to get irked by such reactions is that inevitably, not all of them are coming from an objectively offensive place.

Some of the surprise comes from people who are surprised at the pace of my transition- fine. I know that not everyone's transition proceeds at the same rate, and mine has been on the faster side of the scale. But you know, not everyone's puberty progresses at the same rate. Are you going to be surprised that some high school boys have sideburns and some have straggly patches? No! Because you know that every guy is dealt a different combination of genetics and testosterone levels and will grow his own facial hair accordingly. So why am I left out of that equation and greeted with surprise?

And of course, some of the surprise isn't really there. I'm sure that sometimes, I'm being overly defensive, and just projecting onto comments made by folks who are merely remarking on an observation of how my appearance has changed. Which it has! It can't be denied- I do look different, and that is due to my transition. Even people who are on totally board with my transition are going to mention it- in fact, it'd be more than passing strange if it wasn't mentioned! What an elephant in the room that would be, if we all just pretended that Everything Is Normal.

A tempting elephant, though, if I'm being honest. The longer it's been since the beginning of my transition, the more frequent the occasional thought that it really would be nice if I hadn't had to deal with all the fuss of this transition- though I couldn't tell you whether I'd prefer that to mean not having a conflict between my gender identity and physical form in the first place, or having had an ordinary ascent into masculinity (descent into hirsuteness!) like any other boy.

But it's a fine line, and it's hard not to hear such comments in the greater context of how other exceedingly similar comments are made: subtly bolstering the idea that my transition is a second-rate, synthetically-aided route to 100% imitation manhood. Because the flip side of being surprised at my facial hair is to expect it, and accept it as normal, which is what I do.

I realize there's a great deal of ground to be trod upon very carefully when throwing words like "normal" around, but I guess what I'm saying is that I undertook this transition specifically in order to set myself on the masculine trajectory of sideburns, belly hair, even-god-forbid-back-hair, and I'm surprised myself and then defensive and irritated when people are surprised at what I've accomplished. I can't help hearing skepticism and invalidation in their surprise, and I have to stop myself from saying "what, you expected Mary Martin as Peter Pan forever?"

Which I would regret the moment it left my mouth, and am now having trouble not deleting from the screen. It is an unkind thing to say on a lot of levels, not least because it smacks of the kind of jockeying for position between different types of trans folks that I've always been dismayed by. I don't want respect for my choices to come at the expense of respect for other people's choices. But I do want my choices to be understood! I put a lot of thought into making them, and then a lot of effort into carrying them out, and it's damn hard not to get defensive when that work is questioned.


Anyway. Speaking of hairy faces, here's the latest incarnation of my 'burns.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

small moments

I was helping a woman at work yesterday and she commented on my Martin van Buren muttonchops.

"I like your facial hair! You men have so many options."
Ha! I thought to myself. It's true! We do! I'm enjoying my muttonchops a lot, despite the fact that I now have more cleanshaven surface area to maintain. It's nice, too, because without the moustache (and the corresponding obvious space where it doesn't connect to my beard) it's harder to tell that my beard is still in a nascent stage. I'm glad not to look like a high schooler, though I guess looking like our nation's 8th president is a bit of an odd trade off.
At dinner last night, telling a new acquaintance that I have a twin, he asked "Fraternal or identical?"
I gave my long-ago-formed standard answer "Fraternal- my sister and I don't look alike at all!"
To which he responded, "Oh, a sister! Fraternal, of course. Ha, does anyone ever ask you if you're identical? Haha!"
And I remember being a kid and being similarly scornful of those poor ignorant folks who didn't understand that identical meant from the same egg! So of COURSE they couldn't be one boy and one girl! Now that my situation is more complicated than that, I have to smile at my own former ignorance.
Of course, I could've said to the guy "Well, actually, I'm a transsexual, so technically we could've been identical."
I didn't say it- another of the myriad ways, growing more myriad every day, in which I don't challenge the world's assumption that I'm a non-trans man (cissexual)- but as I'm writing this, I wonder, could we have been identical? I know I've read somewhere, or maybe seen a short PBS segment on, a transman and his sister who were identical twins. But thinking about what makes me who I am, and how we used to joke as kids about if we'd been identical, and what if there'd been two Kates or two of me! If we'd been identical and both from my egg, would my mother have had two transsexual children?
Curious! Goes back to the great unknown nature/nuture/etc debate about what causes us to be who we are. I think one of the arguments put forth in the PBS segment about the other trans/non-trans twin pair was that their mother had been in a car accident while pregnant and the trans twin had absorbed all of the adrenalin/other hormones that were released, which caused masculinization of the brain, which caused transsexualism. No explanation of why only one twin got the full dose, though. Anyway, it was interesting to my family because MY mother was in a car accident while she was pregnant with us! Just a small one, much less intense than the one on television, but a car accident nonetheless! Maybe that's the reason...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

now i'm angry!

[ETA: More coverage and eloquent explanation of this tragedy can be found over at Feministe.]

I read something pretty offensive on the other day, and dashed off the following email to the author with the subject heading "wow, way to be offensive."
This is in response to the 'news item' you posted yesterday on about the transwoman found murdered in the Bronx. ( Beyond the basic insensitivity you showed in refering so callously to a human being who was senselessly murdered, you added insult to injury by referring to this woman as "he" and a "man."

I realize that Gothamist isn't a "real" news outlet, so perhap you don't feel bound by the same regulations as professional journalists, but how about taking a cue from the AP Stylebook, which has this to say about refering to trans individuals:

"Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly."

You can find some more information about that here:

At the very least, take a hint from this woman's neighbors and acquaintances, all of whom had the common courtesy and decency to refer to her with respect in the manner which is not only appropriate to her feminine presentation, but also clearly the manner which she prefered.

I really enjoy Gothamist, but reading this post was an exceedingly unpleasant experience. I hope that the feedback you've received (what I read in the comments, as well as my own email) can help you learn about why the things you wrote were so offensive, and how you can easily avoid such errors in the future.

Let me know if you'd like to discuss this further- I'd be happy to.


I typed it all up and sent it in a fit of rightous anger within about 15 minutes of spotting the post. That same night, I got a short email back:

Eli,Thanks for your email. This is an area I admit that I do not have a lot of knowledge about and appreciate the guidance that our readers give us. That said, I did not mean any malice or ill will. Best, XXXX

Well, I appreciate that she returned my email so quickly, and I realize that I came across as pretty mean in my intial email. I sent her back a short note saying "Sorry I was brusque, thanks for responding, hope you learned your lesson."

But now I'm wondering if I should've apologized again. I think I was pretty justified in my anger at the intial post, and I think maybe I let her off the hook too easily- particularly considering that her email wasn't so much of an apology or even an acknowledgement of wrong doing so much as it was a purely mollifying response.

She didn't acknowledge explicitly that she'd been offensive, and she didn't give any concrete indication that she's going to follow through on the "guidance" that we readers are offering her, and stop with the offensive language in the future.

Just gets my blood boiling, realizing how easy it is for a non trans person to say something as fucked up as that, and then fall so short of actually acknowledging or taking responsibility for any personal privilege and transphobia that led to the statement in the first place. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings- I didn't mean it!" is not the same as "I'm sorry I didn't know that my comments were insulting, demeaning, and offensive, and I will try to rectify my ignorance by learning about the non-trans (or cissexist) privilege that I am practically drowning in, and seek to be more respectful and accurate in my language in the future."