Monday, October 20, 2014

Hard Rituals. In which I resolve to keep my gender's yellow safety on.

My partner and I moved to Oakland from Seattle In January. And having cycled in both cities I have to say that it often seems like nobody in Oakland wears a helmet when they're riding their bike*. Now I totally see the appeal in that. I see cyclists wearing funky hats and rocking kick ass hairdos. And I kind of envy their freedom. Especially since (when properly trimmed) I like to coax my own hair into a something between a pompadour and a mohawk:

This hairstyle really can't survive being stuffed into a helmet. Despite how awesome it would be to ride around looking fly and feel the wind move through my bouffant, I don't feel safe when riding without my helmet. I feel like I would look more like me if I stopped wearing one. But I think I would stop acting like myself if I decided to stop wearing it. 

Wearing a helmet is part of my politics and process as a cyclist. It shows that I believe in prevention and preparedness when it comes to taking risks associated with moving through a world made for cars on something that is distinctly not a car. It's bright yellow dome is an advertisement of my concern for my own safety and my awareness of the risk I am taking on. It shows that I know how to take care of me.

Last night my partner and I had one of our first serious talks about the possibility of me taking hormones (inspired by our new favorite TV show). When he asked me how I felt I took a long time and gave my answer as an incomplete list of feels (lists help me cope):


Complicated was a segue into everything else. But let's address the fear first. I fear medical procedures of any kind. I fear that my sensitivity to most medications and chemicals would make introducing testosterone into my system a change too enormous for my psyche to handle. I fear I will lose that very sensitivity. It can be a burden sometimes but I cherish it deeply. I fear losing the ability to cry. I fear that taking testosterone will make my masculinity (more) hostile, that it will turn me into a Bad Guy. I fear losing my ease of empathy. (this list goes on and on)

But the changes T would likely evoke in me are also attractive in many ways. I'd like a higher muscle to fat ratio. I want to be able to grow (more and darker) facial hair. I want to not have to hide curves to get the look I want when wearing mens clothes. It'd be a relief not to feel I have to "put on" any clothes or behaviors to be seen for who I am.

This is where the frustration, conflict, and eventually shame come into play. Granted I think I'd look good with many of the characteristics T would bring out. But I also feel angry and disappointed in myself for being attracted to/seduced by that. Because I like the way my body looks now. And I see the masculine in it. So do many of the people close to me. I love my body for the way it is now. I don't want to give it up. It kind of feels like I'd be abandoning a part of myself I am comfortable with, just to satisfy what I feel are the false standards of masculinity.** My demanding others see the masculinity in my big breasted, wide-hipped, and sweet-faced casing subverts these standards. It challenges convention by requiring those who associate with me to rethink what they learned about gender and body.

The ugly and common underside of this is that my demands are often rebuffed. People (even those I love and who love me) will refuse to recognize me by willfully ignoring my pronoun preference. And when I try to explain myself or my gender I'm sometimes blamed for the confusion and subsequent discomfort of others. If all that sounds tiring that's because it is. It's a lot of work. 

But for now the set of demands my identity requires is an honor and a privileged I'm willing to pay for. Making these demands is a ritual I give my energy to every day.*** Just like the practice of securing the straps of my helmet under my chin, it's tiresome and restrictive. It keeps me from appearing to others in exactly the way I'd like, but for the most part the security it grants me, and the hard message it sends are necessary to my being.

*In California the only requires that those under 18 wear a helmet. While there isn't a state law regarding helmets in Washington, King County law requires all riders to wear one.

** This is absolutely my personal perspective on my own transition process and is in no way fit to apply to or reflect the transition or rational of other trans people.

*** I'm no martyr. I know that I may not be able to "pay" this price of my energy forever and that a transition into a gender role society will readily accept may be in my future. I just want to fight while I feel I can.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pitting: myself against the system

Today at work I sweat so profusely that the sodden cotton of my work shirt started chaffing against my armpits.

Usually I arrive to work sweaty (from the bike ride). With only five minutes to change before clock in, I peel off my street clothes with a relief I'll quickly smother under my "uniform". I'd like to say that putting fresh clothes onto my sweaty body is my least favorite part of the workday. But I'd be lying. There's something about being paid poorly to work that makes each slightly unpleasant task seem like it's the worst thing you do. It's a negative meditation technique I think. Keeps my body sharp and my mind off the numbing crawl of time spent on the clock.

I'm a sweaty person by nature. And I swear that I am just getting sweatier and sweatier as the years go by. But usually once I've been working for a half hour most of my bikesweat has dried. And I just sweat a bit throughout the day from doing my customer service work. That sweat accumulates throughout an 8 hr shift and by the time I clock out I'm grateful to change into my still slightly moist-pitted street clothes. Which I proceed to make even sweatier with a quick-as-I-can-make-it ride home.

This morning a customer and I went through an extremely stressful transaction before I was even able to hit the 30 minute mark (a cascade of system/equipment errors were mostly at fault) and my sweat glands got kicked into high gear. Which is where they stayed for the rest of the day. Today was an anomaly. But I pretty much sweat my way through two shirts on a workday anyhow.

Now I know I could probably avoid so thoroughly dirtying as many garments as I do on a workday by riding more slowly. But riding slower goes counter to my style. And its means spending 10 more (unpaid) minutes doing stuff related to work. And at just a scrape above minimum wage, they ain't paying me enough to smell like roses or do work off the clock. It's pretty fucking lazy, but I see my pitting as a quiet, revolting yet beautiful sort of resistance.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Back to School: a journal entry

At 7:45 on Thursday morning I had to clean out the rotted food in our broken fridge before the repair man came by and noticed how rancid it was. After a rushed job of tossing jars and produce bags into a hefty bag I hopped on my bike ready to whizz away to my volunteer gig that started at 8:25. Too bad my tire was flat, and the ride share service I usually rely on was not working at the time. I finally got there at 8:40 after calling my partner and having him send a car to me from another ride share service. I arrived late just in time for action.

This week I started volunteering as an in-class writing and reading tutor for a local Oakland high school. I chose this program because of it's integrated vision. It gives individualized attention to students during school hours and its methods are built off of a respectful student-centered "meet the writer/reader where they are at" philosophy. So I don't have to worry about 'motivating' my student to get a good grade (unless the student cares about that, which most do).

Right now I am working with three students, who for the sake of anonymity I'll call Marco, Emma, and Brent.

Immediately after I arrived I was assigned to work with Emma. She had trouble looking at me. She fidgeted frequently. I think felt shame/embarrassment about the very small amount of work she had done so far, but also about the kind of work she thought she would do. I think, based on what she was telling me, she is going to write about thoughts of self harm, among other things. Which is some heavy shit indeed.

I wondered very briefly about talking to her teacher about what she told me. But for the moment, for this week, I want to keep her trust. And as a person who regularly contemplates self harm I believed that it was only thoughts. I hope I'm right. I feel some regret about this decision and I made a promise that if she mentions it again I will let her know that those kinds of thoughts can be very serious. Let her know I care about her well being and ask if she want help finding a teacher or a counsellor to talk to about those them.

But that resolution was made long after she and I interacted. Most of the time when I am working with these student writers I ask questions, listen, and write down everything they say (as much if it as my slow hands can catch). Afterwards I hand over the sheet of what I transcribed and say "look how much work you got done!"

A little later than I was supposed to, I switched to working with Marco fro the rest of this period. He let me sit awkwardly in silence for the better half of out time together while he worked through the finishing touches of the assignment he had a very good handle on. He did ask me he read his work to him and we talked a little about it. It was nice to see him get his poem on independently. However I couldn't help but feel I should have offered more assistance or more something at least. I always feel that way when the student knows what they're doing and has now fears/anxious about their work.

During the next class I had the privilege of working with Brent for the entire period. Who, when I plunked down next to him was certain that I was Johnny Law and that I'd arrived to tell him to get to work and do it right. He was determined not to show that he might have a good time writing.

Now I did tell him to get work done, but I also told him that writing poetry is work. And I'm sure there was a danger in writing what he wrote about disliking school. I told him "You can like the writing you do at school and still hate school. A lot of school is pretty much bull shit. But the work you do here can still matter to you."

Mostly we sat in silence together while he wrote a fantastic poem that used to assigned form to draw out the delicious contrast between expressing his respect to family and performing empty gestures of "respect" required by school.

I know I'm no supposed to pick favorites, but jesus, he wrote 12 lines of searing words from just a bubble of brainstormed words. Hell, I write poetry as a calling and usually can't to that in 45 minutes. I was most impressed with him (even though Marco was further along). Before I had to leave we scholgged through how he might include alliteration and more sensory details (the reqs of the assignment). While he clearly resented being required to include these elements, I'm pretty sure he enjoyed learning about and experimenting with them. I found his reluctant enjoyment of writing very exciting.

As I was leaving I saw Emma in the hall surrounded by friends. She smiled at me and said "that's my writing coach".

That smile made me forget all about the horrible details of my moldy flat-tire morning.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Allen's Treehouse*

When I was fifteen my bother had a saw fall on his head from 20 ft in the air. I don't remember if I actually saw this happen or not but there's a clear picture in my mind of what happened and I remember thinking he was dead or that surely he was doing to die. My brother is not dead. Though they did put several staples into a considerable gash that was smack dab in the middle of his hairline.

My brother has always been interested in beautifully doomed ideas (not that he'd ever call them that). During his teenage year he'd blather incessantly about plans for a perpetual motion engine. I loved him for that.

The saw dropped from a bucket of tools he was hoisting a up to the platform he'd jury rigged between the two douglas firs that loomed over my dad's garage. Allen had set up a complex system of ropes and pulley's in order to bring up the tools and the doors he'd salvaged from the clutches of condemned buildings.

Nothing brought more color to his face than encountering a sturdy old thing he'd found a new use for. (I look forward to growing old with my brother). He was going to build the entire treehouse out of the heavily beveled planks that sat in old frames and had, without humans, lost their vocation. It disappoints me deeply that my shame-prone, teenage-poet self never noticed how lovely of  project he'd embarked on (though I guess nobody starts out a good poet huh?)

Sometimes we, we being he, myself, and our little sister Ariel, would climb up there to play cards together or just to get away from our parents for a while. Nothing against our parents, but we lived in a small house. We were all post pubescent or in the full throes of it by that point. And kids over a certain age just feel some relief knowing there's a place in the world where adults the age of their parents can't get to.

This was not a tree house for children though. At nearly forty feet up the climb was physically strenuous and probably too dangerous even for us. You'd arrive at the top pretty winded and surprisingly grateful to have something solidly geometric and level for your body to rely on. It as never not scary for me. Though I think Allen was never afraid. Sometimes I think  he never is.

It was a paradise up there. Seriously. It only takes thirty feet of climbing to reach an altered state. And us being the super uncool straight edge kids were were (I think I was even afraid of drinking beer at the time) it was the most badass we got to feel. When school let out for summer we took our binders up and threw them all the way down.

But one day in August a strong gust of wind blew in, brusquely tossing half our playing cards onto the neighbor's roof. That malicious chunk of wind also knocked loose a door that had yet to be strapped to anything. It hit Ariel on the shoulder and head pretty hard, and she decided never to climb up there again.

I still went though. Still dreamed with my brother about how good it was going to look with all those unhinged things brought together against the wind and in spite of gravity and expired purposes.

But when he dropped that saw on himself, and was rushed to the hospital in need of metal teeth to hold together the new mouth he'd almost opened in his skull, our parents got scared. And we stopped trying to make lofty things out of old openings and rusty hinges.

The treehouse waited half finished and lonely for about a week. Then a bunch of raccoons braved the heights and started a family up there. The last time I climbed up (without my parent's permission) the whole place smelled like shit and animals.

Three years ago the city had my family cut those trees down. And now whenever I visit my childhood home there's too much sky. I have no idea what happened to the treehouse of old doors. I like to think it's ghostly opening still hangs up there, 20 feet above the mossy roof of my father's garage. But the wind probably blew that away too.

*as with all memoir, the exact details of this piece are subject to vast amounts of creative misremembering and some pretty shady guesswork.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bad Morning

I know that I am supposed to be writing essays and all, but yesterday was brutally busy. I was running up against a grad school deadline. I ended up writing a much more in depth essay at the end of a day that had too many small errands and not enough time to take stock of what I'd done. Today I am tired, depressed, and empty of the familial intimidation an approaching deadline offers. And so when I sat down to write something this afternoon only poetry came out. Sad exhausted poetry.

Important note: I don't usually feel this way

Nothing feels more like belonging than
sleep. This flat-tire, rancid,
broken-refrigerator morning bullies me
with its unfulfilled comedy. I awoke
too full of excuses to cough up anything
like laugher. My love life's leftovers crust
over my eyecorners. So I rub the itch
of conversations unfinished. I have
no tincture for this. Weary
sets into the bones like
black mold ribs bend
and prickle. Even breathing
becomes another excuse
a nebulous bitter flinching. I think,
maybe, if I make an incision I might
be able to find out where the issue is,
or maybe instead of cutting through that
sad shiver of oatmeal, I could drown it out
where the silver-necked
ducks are diving, confident
after the squirm of fresh and lively.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A critique of transphobic supposedly unbiased rhetoric

So this afternoon I read Michelle Goldberg's What Is A Woman: the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.

Not pictured: all of the fucks I tried not to give but ended up surrendering anyway
It absolutely reminded me of reading Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs two years ago.

Both styles of writing employ the self same "subtle" tactics that make their biases seem more legitimate/natural without actually stating those biases. As a fan of bias-disclosure this bugs me.

For instance, Goldberg gives specific visual and physical detail to the majority of the radical feminists she quotes or shortly profiles. The trans advocates who's voices she leans on are afforded little of these humanizing characteristics. The only trans people who get detailed descriptions are either throwing their support behind radical feminist or have decided to de-transition.

This schism in representation is particularly clear when she profiles the rightfully identified "Abusive posts [proliferated] on Twitter and Tumblr" made by allegedly trans activists. None of those "trans activists" are humanized with physical description. Goldberg mentions a photographic threat but chooses to focus on the knife in the photo rather than the person holding it.

In the very next sentences we're given a friendly amount of context about Lierre Keith. She has a name, an outfit, a well described hairdo, and we get to know what she does for a living. Only after all of that personal information does Goldberg obfuscatingly say that the activist group Keith is a part of: "D.G.R. is defiantly militant, refusing to condemn the use of violence in the service of its goals."

Consider the visceral difference a you as a reader feel when reading an actual threat in contrast to the feeling you get form reading the distanced language with which Goldberg describes the unspecified "violence" condoned by D.G.R. For me this exposes a bias in the writer's own notions. It shows me who she is willing to grant leeway and give the benefit of her doubt. It shows me that she considers some violence to be worse than others. Now I don't know if this bias in her language is done intentionally or not (though with Levy I assumed it was unintentional).

But in the craft of fiction this is how you set your readers up for a polarization. It's how you create  Good Guys and Bad Guys. The Good Guys get detailed and compassionate descriptions and yes, sometimes do vague sorts of violence to the Bad Guys for the "greater good". The Bad Guys are usually only shown in the graphic throes of committing violence with no additional context.

In this article acts of violence are associated with both radical feminists and with trans activists. However the polarizing presentation of that information drastically changes the way the reader will receive and process that information. This article is not designed to humanize trans people or trans activists. And it's more than just the polarizing way she (refuses to) characterize/s trans activists. In the third paragraph of her article she makes the misstep that dooms any possibility of trans people and their experiences being validated by her writing.

She states: "Trans women say that they are women because they feel female--that, as some put it, they have women's brains in men's bodies."

Not only is this an excruciatingly basic reduction of the experience most trans people have, it's erases trans women before the piece has really begun. This erasure may not seem entirely evident to non-language nerds.

Let me show you what I mean:
Trans women don't "feel like women". They ARE women. Reducing someone else's explicitly stated experience as what they "feel like" shows a huge distrust of that person's reality.

Think about it this way:
Say you had a headache or a medical condition, and you said to a friend who you were supposed to meet for lunch that you couldn't make it because of the uncomfortable reality of your health was preventing you from attending. And then imagine this friend, instead of trusting that the pain you felt is real simply said "I guess if that is how you feel." and hung up.

Instead of just nodding and accepting it as true when a trans person tells her, Goldberg responds condescendingly with "well if that's the way you feel". It's rude. It shows that Goldberg does not trust even the explicitly stated experiences of trans people.

Yes it acknowledges those experiences. But it degrades them categorically. It marks those experiences as impossible to exist as a shared reality. Because if it's a feeling someone else has, then you don't have to accept it or feel it too I guess.

This distrust and assumed falseness is echoed in Goldberg's use of the world "transgenderism" throughout the entire piece. As if the identities of entire swathes of people under the trans* umbrella were just some -ism. Ism, which google delightfully defines as "a distinctive practice, system, or philosophy, typically a political ideology or an artistic movement." In other words a lifestyle.

Being transgender is not a fucking "lifestyle". Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn't it common 20 years ago to hear homophobic people talk disparagingly about lesbianISM and the "gay
lifestyle" (okay okay I know people still do this but I live in a queer Mecca). To me reducing transgender folks and there experiences to the realm of an -ism is really just an echo of the rhetoric that straight people use(d) to ostracized and delegitimize gay and lesbian people.

Much as I would love to I won't go into refuting the many and mostly flawed or anecdotal points Goldberg tries to pass off as evidence that TERFs are in fact being persecuted by trans people. Others have done so already. And I believe my views on the exclusion of trans women from radical feminist spaces has been clearly stated (summary: it's complicatedly wrong).

This post was an examination of how Goldberg's biases seeped (or perhaps were intentionally leaked) into the craft and style elements of this article.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book Club Excuse

Five months ago I read this awesome book:

And due to poor scheduling on my part I forgot that tonight I am going to a queer theory book club to hear what other people thought about it. I'd love to write you up a post about all my thoughts on this book, but the truth is I haven't the time and I honestly don't remember too much about what happened in May.

But I will leave you with this nugget I thought pithy enough to capture:

As you can see it leans a bunch on post-structuralism. But I remember also loving that Wilchins recognizes the Western lens they and most of the book's readers will be obliged to think about gender.

Anyway. I'm hoping to get home brimming with new ideas and a blogpost ready to go. But on the off (and actually pretty likely) chance that I get home just plain exhausted, you have my apologies. This is all the post you get today.