Remember Todd Browning’s “Freaks?” Remember how that woman was made into a chicken? I was just reading an article in Harper’s about tarring and feathering the excise collector back in the day – coating the taxman with boiling hot tar that burned their skin and which then was nearly impossible to remove reminded me how humans have an ongoing history of pretending other humans are somehow less than human, in order to exact revenge, or simply blow off a little steam. Torture as the equivalent of two boiler-makers at a bar on the way home from work, or forcing oneself to watch “The Real Housewives of Orange County” on Bravo.
To not allow a child to explore gender roles seems, if not equally, virulent and catastrophic. It seems just as egregious, just as perverse as tarring and feathering, to thwart a child from expressing itself, but then, I think the most paralytic poison is the stuff I create myself and keep sucking.
I’m musing about this as my family tries on and discards or keeps, new ideas about who their former daughter/sister/niece might be. There’s this obdurate piece of us that digs in around other people. Like, we just can’t allow for a change. People refuse to accept Uncle’s new wife because they feel he didn’t grieve the previous Mrs. long enough; we don’t talk to Cousin because she went B’hai, and we’re not really sure what that even means but we don’t like it. You can’t break ranks in many families without getting at least some shame thrown at you. How much of it sticks is, at the end of the day, entirely up to you, but for most of us it’s a messy, smelly affair.
Anyway, I’m old enough now, and changing genders is weird enough, to allow other people their process without judging it too harshly. It’s pretty much super weird. I did remind my father that I won’t be coming home for the holidays with extra arms or tentacles or anything – that would be next year’s imposed debacle. How do you like me now!? I've gone cephalopod! Don't even think about ordering ceviche, motherfucker.
Where it gets ticklish for me is remembering what a little boy I was. I guess I had this fantasy that when I told my parents I was going to man out that a part of them would be like “oh, it all makes sense now.” I was your textbook trans-kid, in so many ways. My hair was cut in what was called a “pixie” and adults “mistook” me for boy all the time. I never thought they were mistaken; I felt the error had been made by addressing me as “she” - I was convinced that I would eventually be seen for the boy I knew myself to be, that perhaps everyone else was under some sort of mythological thrall that prevented them from seeing what was clearly true.
I had a pair of cowboy boots I never removed. Multiple pictures, black and white and dated 1964, document this fetish. There’s me, in a pleated gray wool skirt (ugh) and turtleneck, cowboy boots, climbing the swing set. I was fearless. These aren’t necessarily boy traits, but there’s something about a child transvestite that’s a pretty clear tell. I went to a very small school, and so was able to play on the football and softball team. I was desired as a teammate, as I was so motivated to disprove my girl, I would juggernaut to goal after goal, literally tearing through boys twice my size with the unique, muscular focus of the tomboy. I was always that kid with “something special,” meaning: adults would find some way of reckoning with the gender stuff. Children always knew, and didn’t care, unless they discovered they could jar you, unseat you with it. Children are terribly hierarchical, and prone to bloody coups.
So it’s both understandable, and odd, that my parents should find my transition challenging. My knee-jerk to that is, of course, try being me.
But when I came out as a lesbian, it made so much sense! Oh, of course! That’s why! Things clicked into place, not just for me, but for the nation. The tomboy thing was easily absorbed by that (dare I?) heterodoxy. Yeesh. If I’d kept drinking, none of this would be necessary, but alas, I had to get sober and clear a path to my own self and, once having arrived at some clearing, some patio in the overgrown suburb of my past, go “Oh fuck. Now you’ve done it.” Done it indeed. I don’t think I can go back from here, although my friends tried to convince me otherwise, when I expressed pretend dismay at my burgeoning man-love.* “You can go back, like Pregnant Guy!” My big (trans) brother says, disgustedly, “Pregnant Guy looks like a chick with a beard.”
Oh, it’s all contextual, really, isn’t it?! This world of gender variance is so new, so delicious, so disturbing that sometimes I can hardly bear it. It’s like that moment on a roller-coaster, where you’re sheerly terrified and about to pee your pants with joy. I get so frightened by the unknown, so wrapped up in the future, when trannies have jet-packs and we take dinner in a pill, that I almost miss the nuance, the hair that’s gone missing from my hairline as it recedes into the male-pattern vee at the temples; I might miss the fuzz bloom on my belly; how would it be to not have discovered the fine dark hairs populating my swelling jaw?
I’m pupate; I’m neophyte. I can only psychically relax with other trans-guys. Only with the mutated do I find relief, can I be carried in the current. Woman are a challenge to my masculinity, because I want pairing with them; men are accepting of the novelty, for now, but I am a novelty and not an equal.
Just when I think the world might be made of Tinkertoys and Lincoln Logs, these things kaleidoscope and shift and an entirely new dimension is revealed. I typed “reveled” and I should’ve kept it. It’s one of the best parts of being human, the ecstasy of this newness that keeps occurring. I liken it to some spectacular, creepily beautiful origami, that keeps unfolding and folding, now a swan, look, a chrysanthemum! Now a Model T Ford and now a lipoprotein. A tiny elephant or a three-legged rooster, the Chicken Lady – something freakish and foul, something wondrous and phenomenal. That’s just how it is. But it’s like the hairs on the back of my hand: you really really really have to look when the light’s just right.
*Go see Quantum of Solace and tell me you don’t want to make sexy times with James Bond.