Tuesday, September 15, 2009

naming alterations

I dug out my old fencing mask and glove last night- they still fit fine, and feel comfortable and familiar. They're both neatly labeled in my 7th grade handwriting with my old 7th grade name. Why couldn't I had been more restrained and just put my last name on there? How was I to know that nearly 10 years later I'd be trying to scrub that girl's name off my mask with nail polish remover?

To no avail, I might add- I ended up just scribbling heavily over the offending letters, leaving me with my still-in-favor 'E' with a squat sharpie box close on its heels. I'm not worried about it- besides the fact that no one will even notice, I have no qualms about the fact that the name I chose to put on my equipment as a 12 year old is not the name I'd like to have on there now. (Besides, maybe it used to read "The Eminent Emu!" I was pretty into nicknames for a while in middle school...)

Still, it was a poignant moment to cover over those letters one at a time. I always liked my name as a kid. It was unusual, and beautiful, and I loved to hear the story of how my mom had taken a suggestion of my dad's and shaped it into my name. I'm still fond of those letters, and undoubtedly will always feel a tug when I see them.

For a minute in my early transition, it used to give me knots even to hear the name, not to mention if someone tried to call me by it. Not anymore. I'm not tender there now; that name is fading away from me. I still prick up my ears when I hear it, but I don't turn my head anymore.

I remember a key plot point in an old favorite fantasy novel- the reknowned elfin thief Shadow had been lured into a trap by a wizardly nemesis, who had captured her in a name-circle. She was trapped within a circle inscribed on the floor, whose enchantments were keyed to a particular person's name, such that once that person was tricked into stepping inside the circle, they could never escape. However, to her similarly-entrapped companion's amazement, once the dastardly wizard steps outside, Shadow is able to hurl herself out of the magic circle, sustaining some scorching from fiery sparks but no more. Turns out that the 400 year old elf was actually named Nightshade, but has just been going by her nom de thievery for the past few centuries. She was able to escape, but not without some damage, since, she explains, you can't have everyone calling you something for years and years without it becoming at least partially your name.

Now that I've finished typing out that little anecdote, I realize I'm actually trying to draw a reversed analogy- I'd be held fast by the circle keyed to the name I gave myself, and could step out of one based on my birthname, which is no longer my name, but can still scorch a bit.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

feint, disengage

I started fencing again last night, for the first time in...at least 8 years, maybe closer to 10. It was wonderful. I fenced with enormous gusto from about 7th-9th grade, and some of 10th grade, i think, but then I moved off to college and then NYC and despite a few attempts at forming a club in college, never really had a chance to fence again. I'm very excited to reinvigorate my fencing career!

Plenty of interesting thoughts to think about my gender, though, for sure! When I was last fencing, I started with foil, as beginners ought to, and then quickly switched to sabre. Of the three weapons, sabre is in some ways the most physical, as it involves cutting attacks with the edge of the blade as well as thrusting with the point. It was a male-dominated sport for years (still is, in plenty of ways), and it only became an Olympic sport for women in 1996. So in the late 90s, when I took up the sport, it was very much an exciting thing to be a girl sabre fencer. Not a lot of women were fencing that weapon yet, and it was still seen as primarily a male weapon.

I was doubly excited by that, both because I was proud of being a trailblazer increasing the number of women in the sport, and also because I was thrilled as always to be doing something that was perceived as masculine, surrounded mostly by boys and men. And, of course, it was my favorite of the weapons, with what seemed to me more excitement in the slashing, and more variety of attack and defense. It's something of a fencing trope that boys get excited about sabre and being able to whack as well as jab at people, so make of it what you will that I, too, wanted to hack 'n slash my way across the strip.

Now, though, I find myself a bit bemused. As a male, I'm no longer a rarity as a sabre fencer. Of course, fortunately, women sabre fencers are much more prevalent now themselves, so that's great! But it means something a little different when I say that I started fencing sabre in the mid to late 90s, because any number of guys were fencing sabre then. It was an especially exciting time for me to start fencing sabre because it felt like the beginning of a new era for women in fencing, and that was definitely a draw for me.

I wasn't the only girl in my hometown to start fencing then- just across town, at the more elite fencing academy, was a young woman just my age who had also just begun fencing sabre, and who is now the world champion, multi-gold medal winner, best woman sabre fencer in the world. I even fenced her once, at a small local competition, and while she beat me, it was close: 5-4. When I was watching her dominate at the Olympics on TV, I had some pangs of what-if. There were a few months when she and I were quite evenly matched. Clearly, she has astonishing physical talents, but she also plunged headfirst into the competitive world, trained intensely with world-class coaches, etc. Clearly, I didn't, whether out of lack of money (all the equipment and private lessons get very expensive very fast) or opportunity (I was fencing at a much more recreational club, and didn't feel like I could switch allegiances to the other, also much more expensive, studio) or what. But sometimes I wonder what if I had? I know I have some natural skill, and I certainly love the sport. I could certainly have fenced in college, and probably competitively on a national level, though who knows if I'd ever have made it to the Olympics. But I never did pursue that, and there's part of me that really regrets that.

On the other hand...I wonder what would've happened had I done so? Fencing, like almost every sport, is rigidly structured by gender. One might have friendly practice with anyone, but men and women never compete against each other. Had I become a competitive athlete, I wonder how that would've affected my gender identity, and dysphoria, etc? I wonder if I would've developed a strong identity as a female athlete...athlete by choice, female by circumstance, but the two would've been by necessity strongly tied together. I wonder what that would have done in terms of providing a positive association for me with being identified as female. Might it have led to a stronger coping mechanism, and caused me to live as female longer?

For that matter, if I'd been dedicating all of my time to training and fencing and competing, would I have had the time to get involved in the LGBT community to the extent that I did? That was when I first met other trans people and my eyes were opened to the possibility of transition, which of course set the gears turning in my head about my own potential for transition.

If I had been a successful competitive fencer, would I have felt like I had more at stake when deciding to transition? If I had been established with a career, history, win-loss record, etc, would I have been willing to give that up? The fencing community is not that big, and it's always difficult to transition within a small community...and that's without the added trickiness of gender segregation and sports, and all of the arbitrary or un-thought out positions about whether and how transsexual athletes can compete.

And not to mention, I wonder how being a serious athlete would've affected my relationship with my body? As I've mentioned before, I believe I had a huge upswing in my dysphoria once I started paying close attention to my body...that is, once I had to fully inhabit my body in extremely vulnerable situations, etc, etc, you know what I mean. Puberty! Romance! S-E-X! Prior to that, I hadn't paid tons of attention to my body, and as such I think hadn't been as bothered by its ever increasing 'femaleness.' But athletes, I'm given to understand, are much more in touch with their bodies, since they spend so much time shaping and tuning and training them, and of course rely on them to do their sport. I wonder whether having an athlete's vivid relationship with my body so much would've caused my dysphoria to crop up sooner, or whether getting such use out of my body would've cause me to develop positive associations which would've counterbalanced the dysphoria, and let me cope longer?

I'll never know, of course. All I know is that I didn't, and I transitioned, and now I'm delighted at a chance to re-discover a sport that gave me such joy in my early teens. There isn't much I'll need to relearn...the equipment is essentially the same, though I'll need to order a new jacket that fits my newly broad shoulders, and doesn't have the pockets on the front for plastic breast protectors. And from my brief experience last night, I think the athletic prowess that comes from being nearly 24 and full of testosterone as opposed to 12 and NOT on T will serve me in good stead.

Still, there is one small matter. I used to like to brag a bit about that one bout I had with the Olympic gold medalist, and how I got 4 touches on her in our one competitive bout. I can't tell that story now, without delving into my transsexuality, since men and women don't fence each other in competition.

Of course, one might say that this is the perfect opportunity to come out. Why NOT tell everyone that I fenced her, because I used to be a woman, and now I'm a man? It's a great opening, an opportunity to do a little community education and visibility raising. The only way to advance equal rights for trans folk is for more trans folk to come out, to end the myth that we're rare, freakish weirdos. Right?

Well....here's the classic bind that illustrates so clearly why "You Gotta Be Totally Out or Yer a Coward!" is such a false dichotomy. I am SO happy and excited to have found an opportunity to fence in my little New England town (and kicking myself for not discovering it for the past year, but oh well). The two teachers are in their late 60s, having been teaching and coaching and officiating since they were undergrad fencers at NYU in the 1960s. I have no idea how they would react to my disclosure, nor how the roomful of 14-17 year old boys who make up almost all their other fencers would react. I really don't want to close this opportunity, by dint of awkwardness or transphobia or anything else. So I think I'm going to keep my mouth shut, which really, just means that I have to refrain from bragging about one essentially meaningless bout that I had with a fellow teenager who now happens to be the best in the world.

Unless of course I am just a coward.