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C11P93 Unwavering published on 17 Comments on C11P93 Unwavering

It’s been a while since I talked about books and random musings, so today I’m going to share a few of the novels I’ve read and the thoughts on gender they inspired.

When I set out to make my diverse author reading list for 2016, I was particularly interested in books by transgender authors. Since I’m writing for a trans* character, I wanted to educate myself as much as possible. Part of that education comes from non-fiction articles and talking with friends about their real-life experiences. It can also come from fiction and autobiographies.

Unfortunately, trans* authors were often hard to find. (I’m constantly keeping my eye out for new books to add, so if you have a favorite please share!) The first book that my Google search pointed me to was “I am J” by Cris Beam.

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This is a classic coming-of-age story as J, a young trans* boy, grows into a man. Not always a pleasant book, as Cris captures that uncomfortable teen experience of being one’s own worst enemy on occasion. Although J has plenty of external troubles too. While being trans* definitely heaps a huge amount of additional stress on an already difficult situation, the book is ultimately about becoming an adult. In realizing that everyone, even one’s parents, has problems. And sometimes you have to live your own life and let other people sort out their own damage.

I didn’t discover until after I’d finished the book that, while the protagonist was transgender, the author was not. That said, the book did come from an informed place, as Cris Beam prior to “I am J” wrote “Transparent,” a non-fiction book about four young teen girls that Cris met while volunteering at a school for gay and transgender teens. Cris was connected to her local transgender community very closely.

However, I’d really been hoping to read work by people who were trans*, rather than researched trans* people. Even “Beyond Magenta”, which is a series of interviews with six transgender or gender-neutral young adults, is still a work compiled by a cis-gender person.

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So I was pleased when I discovered “Rethinking Normal” by Katie Rain Hill and “Some Assembly Required” by Arin Andrews at my library. These two memoirs were in a collected volume, in part because they are the two sides of a connected experience. You might have heard of Katie and Arin. Their story was presented by the media as “America’s first openly trans-teen couple.” Which is kinda silly because transgender people have been around a loooooong time and that makes trans* people sound like some sort of new phenomena…just because we’re starting to have national conversations about trans* people doesn’t mean they haven’t existed prior to now. Regardless, each memoir focuses on their childhood, meeting each other, becoming a couple, and drifting apart.

Reading their personal accounts was a very interesting experience for me as a reader for a few reasons. For one, it highlighted a few weird blind-spots I have on gender. I read Arin’s account first, and found myself rooting for him every step of the way. Yet when I read Katie’s account, I kept being much more critical of her. What was going on? Was it writing style, or personality? Or was it the fact that Katie was a woman, and I’ve been trained from a very young age to judge women more harshly than men? To be frank, I’m still sorting through my reactions. It bothered me that I seemed to judge Katie by a different standard than Arin, particularly when their stories had so many similarities. Something for me to keep my eye on, and continue to evaluate.

The other reason it was interesting was that I heard different views on gender that I don’t encounter much in the mainstream, cis-dominant world-view. One section that resonated strongly with me was from Arin’s memoir, from a discussion between him and a boy named Austin. Austin was talking about his own feelings on his sexuality and gender. He said, “I think I’m sort of gender neutral. Like, I know the outside of my body is a boy, and I’m happy with that. But inside I’m something else, at least in terms of how society expects a boy should be.”

I had never seen gender described like that before, but it made so much sense to me. When I first learned about transgender people, one of the ideas that I had the most difficulty understanding was how a person’s gender, and being recognized as the gender they identified as, could be so vital to them. I have never particularly identified with my gender. It is so utterly disconnected in my mind to what makes me…well…what I consider me. It’s part of why I’ve always been frustrated with gender roles so deeply. The behavioral codes and expectations based on physical attributes seemed so absolutely arbitrary and asinine. I happen to be in a female shaped body, but the person I view as me has very little to do with that shell. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with my body. I don’t experience gender dysphoria. It’s just…irrelevant to me. Sometimes I might feel more feminine, or more masculine, but most of the time I just…don’t feel any gender at all.

I’ve come to view myself as more of a woman as I’ve gotten older. I used to hate being a girl, but not because I felt I was a boy. I hated what being a girl represented. To me growing up, it meant weakness. Women were vapid, ignorant, inferior, stupid, objects, and fragile. I didn’t feel any of those things, so I viewed my gender as a handicap to overcome. If I could make people see the person I was beneath the shell of my gender, then they’d be seeing the real me. Over time, I’ve come to realize the problem is not my gender, but society’s general issues with people who are women. Recognizing that has made it easier to accept my feminine aspects…but even now if I was to try and put myself on a spectrum, I’d feel the most accurate position would be something floating back-and-forth around dead center.

As I researched gender more, I came to realize that a lot of people identified with their particular gender far more strongly than I did. Accepting this became part of coming to terms with the idea that “normal” as a single concept where everyone is the same doesn’t actually make any sense to me. We all have different experiences. We all have a different sense of self. Who am I to tell somebody else what their perspective is? Nobody can “Know Myself” better than I can. And thus the most qualified person to tell the world who I am is me. Which means that the most qualified person to tell the world who THEY are is THEM. “Normal” isn’t sameness. “Normal” is that everyone is different, and that’s okay. Somebody tells me who they are. It’s my job to accept their reality and their truth. Not to try and super-impose my own over it.

What made that section of “Some Assembly Required” so special was it was the first time that I’d read a perspective on gender that I actually related to. I never realized how much that had bothered me until that moment. I read those words over and over, and something about them just felt right.

I’m really, really glad I decided to seek out diverse authors this year. Not only has it lead me to a lot of powerful, fun, and interesting stories, but it’s also helped me expand my perspective on my world, and myself.

How do you relate to identity, gender, and your own sense of self? What pieces of you most make up…well…you?

17 Comments

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It’s very weird, my experience with gender is very similar to yours. I’m kind of going through an odd time because there have been moments recently where I’ve started to wonder if I qualify more as agender than female, mostly because I wrote an agender character in a TTRPG I was in and I really identified witht hem. But I’ve also been realizing that a lot like my struggles with certain other things in my life, whenever I think, “Maybe I’m agender?” my immediate feeling is “No, I’m female.” And I didn’t even realize until now that I had a feeling on the subject? But at the same time it has like… nothing to do with anything else. I’m just female. It’s a thing.

So I really don’t know what I should identify as. And it doesn’t help that I feel a lot of pressure right now from various communities, and have started to feel guilt about the fact that I’m cisgender, as if it somehow makes me inherently evil or oppressive or bad to feel connected to the gender I was born as. I went through this same thing when I realized I was bi, though. (There was a point where I was telling myself I couldn’t be bi because obviously I only wanted to be bi because straight people were evil). And now I also feel guilty because I’ve never been in a same-sex relationship or kissed another girl, and now I’m in a heterosexual marriage and what if this makes me a ‘bad’ bisexual? And what if it means I’m not bi at all? Especially since recently discovering I’m ace/gray ace/whatever, I’ve been heaping a lot of anger on myself for not being ‘right’ for either the ‘normal’ community or the LGBT community.

So much to unpack here! Gender seems like such a deceptively simple concept, but the more I’ve researched it, the more gray areas I realize there are. Even reproductive organs, which so many people are so fixated on, are not as binary as a lot of people think. Not to mention how everyone has different hormonal balances. Plus all the complexities of gender presentation and how that mixes in with gender roles and expectations from society. I think it’s okay not to completely know. I’m certainly still trying to figure it all out for myself. I feel like I’m female…ish. Female enough to fell comfortable saying I’m a cis-gender woman. But not cis-gender enough to look at a spectrum and feel okay placing myself deeply into the female-identifying zone. It’s weird. Or maybe, it’s not weird at all, and society is the weird one. That’s often been my conclusion for a lot of things.

The guilt part…I am always wary when guilt enters the picture, because guilt rarely helps anyone. I do think that there is a lot of understandable anger in a lot of marginalized communities. Sometimes that anger comes out in focused, targeted ways. It can be creative, uniting anger that demands people pay attention. Other times, it comes out in more diffuse ways, and that can be especially hard for emphatic people to process. It can be internalized and turn into guilt. Guilt in turn changes what should be responsibility into obligation. Obligation creates resentment and self-worth problems. Not a good cycle!

It is my personal opinion that the primary responsibilities of anyone who’s part of a dominant group to listen, process, and support those who are part of a marginalized group. Listen, to understand and validate the experiences of others. Process, to prevent knee-jerk reactions, separate out the defensive self from the equation (often the anger is not about us PERSONALLY, but it is about a toxic system we are a part of) and then evaluate whether our own behavior is contributing to the situation that is harming others. Support, to promote the voices that are usually left unheard because they don’t have a dominant platform, and to validate the people that we personally are capable of connecting with. The exact way those three steps manifest varies from person to person. They could be very in-person and direct, such as volunteer work with a specific organization. Or they could be more introverted, with a focus on self-education and observation. None of that means feeling bad about who we are. Nobody gets a choice as to how they are born, or in what situation. That understanding should be the basis of compassion, rather than guilt and rejection.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, but that’s the perspective I’m trying to build for myself. It’s definitely a work in process. I don’t always succeed in keeping it in mind. (Looking at my White Guilt, still lurking in the corner of my brain.)

On sexuality, I especially relate to what you’re saying about being bi. A few years ago I heard the term “pansexual” and when I researched what that meant, it made complete sense to me. My sense of attraction has never been connected to gender characteristics. For me, gender feels irrelevant. Maybe that’s because of my own views on my own gender? It’s hard to feel attracted to the opposite-and-same-sex when one doesn’t exactly feel certain as to what the baseline is. I also have such trouble remembering physical attributes at all (most people are hazy blobs of color in my memory) that it was never something I keyed into. How did the person make me FEEL? That’s it. That’s the basis of my attraction.

I think I’ve always been that way, but the non-norm part of me got really squished in junior high. The first week, since I didn’t have a boyfriend at 13 and had no friends, I was identified by my peers as a lesbian and bullied for it. It was especially frustrating, since I didn’t even know my own feelings on sexuality, and suddenly an entire school had decided for me and punished me for it. It mostly stopped when I started to make connections with other misfits, but even they were on watch for any “lesbian vibes” from me, so I started to police my behaviors. Any flashes of attraction to women were quickly quashed all through high school and college. As an adult, I finally started to become okay with those feelings. However, that was only after I’d found Cory, and was in a wonderful, hetero-normative relationship.

I’ve often felt I “didn’t count” as part of the LGBT community because the person I fell in love with happened to be male. Although I suppose by that logic, if Cory’d been female, then I still “wouldn’t count” as the sexuality I actually identify with, because the world would view me as strictly lesbian. I guess that’s one of the issues with those strict binaries. People that don’t fall into them tend to feel a little invisible.

Where guilt creeps in for me is that I feel like I pass as “acceptable by cultural standards” too much to have a right to say anything about any of these topics. I’m cis (enough) and heterosexual (enough) that I don’t have to go through a lot of the oppressive crap that people who are trans or homosexual do. I can hide those aspects of myself with relative ease and not be at risk to lose my job, be the central target of harassment, or get murdered. At least, no more than being a woman puts those aspects of my life at risk. It’s definitely not to the same degree of risk, even if the risk women face is already high. Which makes the risks that trans* folks face just mind-blowingly-stupidly-high. The degree of micro-aggressions I have to deal with for something such as a name change, for example, are far less. The process was still frustrating, but not blocked at every point. People understand “I’m changing my name because I got married.” They are far less accepting of “I’m changing my name because I identify as a gender other than the one I was assigned at birth.” I look at what the trans* folks I follow have to deal with, and know that I have it so easy, and can only imagine how frustrating the things they go through are. What right do I have, with all these privileges, to bring up my own thoughts and frustrations on gender and sexuality? My complaints are like paper-cuts verses a stab wound.

Maybe that’s important to recognize. I’m not the one that should be center stage on a lot of these issues. Maybe most of the time, my job is just to go back to those three goals of listen, process, and support. Yet I think it’s okay for me to speak on my own platforms (ie, this blog) about my own experiences, since that is what this platform was built for. It’s when the stage gets stolen from those that need it most that problems seem to arise.

I’ve been working through a lot of my guilt recently and started coming to similar conclusions you are. It’s been really helpful for me to research biphobia and start to get involved with lending my voice to the effort to get bi- and pansexual people more acceptance within the LGBT community, since there’s a lot of policing from that community on bi people, and a lot of the same misconceptions and poor stereotypes the straight community has about us. The fact that as an ace person (I suppose I should call myself biromantic instead of bisexual because I’m asexual but it always feels like such a stretch remembering to put that down?) I just don’t feel comfortable with sex already makes me feel really ill when the general assumption of bi people is that they’re unworthy partners, can’t be monogamous, and will never be happy with a partner of either gender and so they are super promiscuous. Cultural gender bias did play a role in my childhood when I went through my pink-and-makeup-are-for-sissies-and-if-I-like-them-I’ll-turn-into-the-girls-who-bullied-me phase, but cultural bias against the B in particular of LGBT colored my high school years and onward a lot more. There was a point during my questioning of self phase where I thought I couldn’t be bisexual. I had never had sex, I didn’t want to have sex with everyone, I didn’t want to have sex at all, so I couldn’t be bisexual. All girls complimented each other on their looks and noticed how pretty other girls were, right? (Of course, I guess that’s where gender bias comes in. Guys don’t do that. Any mention of a good masculine characteristic must be immediately followed with ‘No homo!’ because I grew up in the 00’s and that phrase was everywhere. Of course girls started doing that too and it really pissed me off because like, seriously, dude-or-chick, saying something nice about someone does not automatically make you gay).

Of course it didn’t help that my parents were a little overprotective; my mom and dad were fine with homosexuality, but since I was a really sensitive child (I’d been fighting an asperger’s diagnosis for years, but looking back I was super on the ASD spectrum) she kept me away from mentions of it until she could explain it properly. Her only experiences were with homosexuality as a thing that was about sex (she grew up very conservative) and she wanted to make sure she didn’t expose me to any sex at all until it was appropriate. So I found out that “gay” was a thing by accident on the last day of fifth grade when I finally asked one of the bullies straight-out why he thought ‘happy’ was an insult and he told me, “Not happy, gay. As in gay. As in boys who want to kiss boys.” and I’m like, “Oh. That’s a thing? Huh. Why is that bad? Kinda weird. But not bad. Have to think about it.” I found out what ‘Lesbian’ meant when I went to my mom in middle school about how kids ont he bus were teasing me about not knowing certain sexual words, and lesbian was the first one that came to mind when my alarmed mother asked me ‘what kinds of words’ and I gave her the one they called me most often. My mom assured me that being a lesbian would be okay with her, but people shouldn’t be small-minded and assume that about me because I sat with other girls on the bus but had mostly male friends.

I guess my point is that my journey of finding out about my sexuality has been… a bit rough.

But I digress. I think my -real- point is that we all have our own experiences. And, yes, while it’s important not to steal the stage from people who suffer massive abuses every day, I don’t think it’s right for us to assume that the stage is never for us just because our problems aren’t as big as everyone else’s. That’s the same trap depression puts us in when we feel like our problems aren’t deserving of support because Starving Children In Africa. There’s room enough on the stage for everyone; no one should have to be drowned out and everyone’s experiences deserve time in the center, because just by being what we are we’ve experienced problems. I mean, for example, why should we have to ‘pass’? I read an excellent article that points out that ‘passing’, for bisexuals, may be a privilege in some ways, but it’s also an awful pressure because in order to maintain that ‘passing’ we have to police ourselves, that we still face invisible stigma even when people aren’t actively calling us names. And it’s not like people wouldn’t call us names if they knew what we were, either. The article compared being a bi person in a heteronormative relationship to having a miniature closet, comparing it to how coming out even as gay or lesbian isn’t alwyas a one-step process. Bisexuals are invisible in so many ways. People telling us we don’t deserve to have the stage because our problems aren’t as big as theirs only contribute to that invisibility, and we’re being pushed out of a community named for us.

Do we need to give respect to others’ problems? Of course! But it bugs me when people say I can’t talk about oppression or microagressions or biphobia or bi erasure because they’re not as bad as what LGT people face, or, in the case of biphobia and bi erasure, that they “don’t exist”. In some ways, yes, it is a privilege to pass for straight, but, I’ve felt a lot of the pressure of maintaining that privilege. White people don’t constantly have to police themselves to make sure people still see them as white so they don’t start experiencing racism, men don’t constantly have to police themselves to be seen as male or risk the extra 21c an hour on their paycheck they make over women, though admittedly they do need to police their actions to fit in with gender norms and their peers.

But I think passing privilege gets used against us as a weapon to ensure our silence far more than it ought to. We shouldn’t use it as a weapon against ourselves.

(SORRY FOR HOW LENGTHY THIS IS I JUST SORT OF HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS ON THE SUBJECT)

IT’S OKAY TO HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS ON THIS SUBJECT MIRI! I know I do. And it’s complicated, and fluid. My opinion of a year ago is different than my thoughts and feelings today, and in another year I’ll probably have continued to evolve my perspective. Hopefully that will be something I do my whole life.

I hadn’t thought about “passing privilege” or the costs that can include before. You bring up a really valid point.

(And I think this emphasizes my “Guilt doesn’t help” thought, because the part where guilt crept into my previous comment is precisely what you’re countering here. AUGH, WHY IS THIS STUFF SO COMPLICATED? Society is weird, Miri.)

Society IS weird! But that’s because humans are weird and interacting with people is hard. But just like people, society is fluid. get enough individual people changing their minds and society changes, simple as that.

Guilt is in some ways the worst anti-change agent I’ve met. Guilt is an agent of silence and the voice of experience is the language of change. Guilt can motivate us to change ourselves, but only in small doses. When other people guilt us out of a say, theyr’e denying that voice of our experience, and thus denying change. It’s why it’s so often used by people who oppress others, from the micro scale of person-to-person interactions, where it manifests as a favored tool of abusers and controlling personalities, to the macro scale, where guilt and blame are thrown around by politicians and organizations to keep others from questioning their collective authority.

Had the same experience as you in regards to gender. I was always the “tomboy” growing up, and it wasn’t because I identified as male. It was because society said women and girls were supposed to be something I had no interest in being: an object. I grew into a girl that hated girly-girls. It wasn’t until I got older I understood that society’s devaluing of feminine things was the problem, that being feminine wasn’t weak, and the self-hate I had for my own gender melted away. Granted, growing up in a conservative Christian family where Eve was blamed for all of the world’s ills certainly didn’t help much ><

So now I go about being the woman I think I deserve to be, and the rest of the world can shove it.

I am all for the rest of the world shoving it until it can learn to deal with everybody with more respect.

I’m definitely still unpacking and uncovering aspects of that gender-based self-hate. I think my reaction to reading Katie’s story is related to that. There’s an unconscious bias that men are competent, trustworthy, and worth believing and supporting. Whereas women are incompetent snakes who can’t possibly know their own minds. To I consciously believe that? NO. Does that societal training sneak in and color my perspectives? Yes, and it drives me crazy! Every time I think I’ve moved past one aspect of self-hate, I find a new one. I’ll probably be undoing the damage of my childhood (and the continuing impact of societal noise and BS) for the rest of my life.

Yet another tomboyish girl, checking in. I think I would have been just as comfortable and uncomfortable if I was born a boy. On the one hand, no one damsels boys or tries to turn them into little decorations; on the other, they are unfairly expected to repress any sign of weakness, and are treated as more disposable than girls. The world thinks I’m a girl; whatever, I can work with that. But I wouldn’t stop wearing pants or carrying a pocketknife or working a “masculine” job, not for love nor money. Really, I was just lucky to be born in an age where gender roles were a bit less constricting than most of history, and in a family that didn’t try to make me anyone I wasn’t.

I personally hope that we as a culture can continue to erode the needless restrictions on gender roles as I get older. On all sides of that equation. I do agree that you and I live in a much less restrictive time, and in a much less restrictive place, than most history before now and many countries today. I want that trend to continue!

I, too, relate to the bit about not feeling gender very strongly. If society wants to see me as a man, well, that seems to work all right. I outwardly deviate from society’s ideas of masculinity to some extent, but not so much as to lose cis privilege, and gender roles feel largely unimportant. If that were the end of it, I’d conclude that I’m cis by default and call it a day, but it isn’t. I’m not comfortable in my body. I do feel like my genitalia shouldn’t be there, and I’m bothered by pretty much every effect testosterone has had on me, except for the deeper voice (I’m neutral on that). The great majority of the time, it’s a mild nuisance – on the order of background noise – but occasionally gets bad enough that ‘dysphoria’ feels like an accurate descriptor. Hypothetically, in a female body, I expect I’d be more comfortable in some ways, and less comfortable in others – probably less comfortable overall. Really, I just want to do away with my sexual characteristics altogether, which is a tall order, especially considering that I fit squarely into the Not Trans Enough category of narratives (it was hard enough to get myself to take my transness seriously), and that the medical community is only just starting to move past its long-standing tradition of enforcing the gender binary.

Seth, it sounds like you should research the agender spectrum instead, like I did for a while – wanting to ‘do away with’ all your sexual characteristics altogether sounds, from the research I did when writing an agender character, like a common agender narrative. Obviously, only you can determine what your actual gender is or if you have one, but more research might help a lot. There are lots of options for agender people opening up now, too!

That sounds really frustrating. Being uncomfortable in one’s own body sounds like it would feel a lot like being trapped. If there’s one thing that’s always where we are, it’s our own body. And at this point in time, given the medical community and general community as a whole, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of external means of addressing that discomfort. If nothing else, I hope you can find your own peace eventually. In whatever form that may take.

Seconding a lot of the stuff here! =D Gosh, this is a good place to hold reasonable perspectives.
Anyways, I grew up as something of a gender null – I can’t recall being overly feminized or wanting to be overly masculinized, but I’ve never felt myself rejecting calling myself female, or a woman, or even a girl.
(Though, considering the large majority of the people I’ve looked up to online are trans/nonbinary/genderfluid, I suppose some of that outlook started rubbing off on me during high school.)
If anything, I just want to do away with sex in general – most days I just see reproduction as “unnecessary”, and I’ve never really wanted anyone to be sexually attracted to *me* either. Having surgery to remove all relevant organs is something that appeals to me, but I figure I’d never be able to afford it.

There’s the added complication that our culture often struggles to view gender independent from sexuality. As an example, a person might be comfortably male and asexual, but society as a whole likes to paint men as uncontrollably obsessed with heterosexual intercourse, so they’d falsely conclude that male + not interested in sex with women = homosexual…ignoring that the interest isn’t with ANYBODY. Or, because of stereotypes going the other way, that asexual = not male.

That’s kinda why I’ve come to the point where I figure: You tell me who you are. I accept that you know yourself best. I also accept that you might change. My job is to go “Okay, I accept that, what do you need from me to feel respected and safe?” Not “WHOA WHOA WHOA MY WORLD-VIEW SAYS YOU GOTTA FIT IN THIS BOX HOW DARE YOU EXIST OUTSIDE IT.” I guess it’s more work to try and keep track of all the many variations of human experience? Sometimes I still have that knee-jerk reaction of “Nyr! This person is different than me! Oh noes!” but then I take a breath and realize everything is okay and the world is big enough to contain many opinions, perspectives, and people. I figure I’ll get better as I get more practice.

In completely unrelated news, I just found out that my SIL, who is in other ways one of the most accepting people I’ve met down here in the south, is violently, flamingly transphobic and worried about her daughter “going to the bathroom with little boys who are going to rape her” because of the Obama administration’s decree about trans*-inclusive school bathroom policies.

Is it okay that I feel sick to my stomach right now?

Well…that fear unfortunately isn’t where it belongs. That’s fear of sexual violence against women, which is actually a fairly justified fear considering that her little girl has a 1-in-3 chance of being assaulted in her lifetime. Not by trans people, but by somebody that person knows well. The problem is that fear is being projected onto trans people, who are actually in even MORE danger than cis-gender kids, because it’s easy for people to hate what they don’t understand.

The upside is, ignorance does not have to be a constant state. Everybody is capable of learning and changing their minds. And there are more and more resources out there to learn from. Even silly YouTube videos with serious facts, like “Are Gender Neutral Bathrooms Dangerous?” by Stuff Mom Never Told You.

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