The secret idea that drives me the craziest, the idea so many people who don’t think deeply about other people’s lives are guided by, is that gender presentation is a choice for every person. Frankly this secret idea gets to go un-articulated because feminism is dominated by people with a lot of economic privilege and a lot of choices, people for whom economic coercion is mostly theory, a note on one slide of your very transgessive powerpoint.
You only have to go through a drive-through to understand that the gender presentations that will not wreck the life of a PhD candidate living in Bushwick are varied and expansive, but the gender presentations available to the rest of us are not.
What I’m saying is how you earn your money and get your rent paid matters. Every one of your choices relates back to how you get your rent paid. Most people have to consider how they’re getting that rent paid every time they get their hair cut. Some people don’t.
When I was trans-identified and living in Oakland, I was broke on another level of broke-ness. Maxing out my credit cards to buy groceries broke. Balancing being so broke, and being so gender dysphoric, my sexuality being in such a big flux, and meeting again and again people who couldn’t stop monologuing about themselves, was rough. I was not happy to be into dudes again. It wasn’t a part of my life plan- dudes are scary, especially in the Bay Area where there’s someone on a leash in every BART car. So one day I was trying to talk about it to a friend who, like all Californians, was much more comfortable with monologuing than active listening.
My friend said to me, “You should marry a dude and that way you could get a bunch of money from your parents.”
Now, what my friend did not know because she had never thought to inquire, was that my parents have no money. My mom’s a retired nurse. My dad is a community organizer. They have enough money for themselves and that’s it.
It hit me, in that moment, that I had known my friend for a year and she had missed the context for about 90% of my life. She thought that I was making an active choice to work in shitty restaurant jobs, where I was getting both sexually harassed and pressured into making big announcements about being trans. She thought I didn’t actually need those jobs.
Why’d she think that? Because in the Bay Area there are a lot of trans-masculine people who have parents with money. That’s why. Because they went to Smith, or Simmons, or some other women’s college, their parents paid for it, and then they come to Oakland, and live in apartments their parents are paying for. They work for free at various radical organizations. Their parents fly them home every holiday. In a context like that you can pretty much have any haircut you want, and you can have any gender presentation you want.
That is not my context. It wasn’t until I was around all those people that I really understood how different the consequences of our choices were. When I was working at the clinic, every other trans-masculine person who worked there didn’t get their first job until after they’d graduated college. (One had worked for their family’s furniture story- I’m sorry, working at a family business is not the same as working for strangers.) I was the only trans-masculine person there with student debt. I suspect I was the only one whose parents weren’t buying their plane tickets.
It’s frustrating for me to be around liberal people who are from a context where they are financially ok no matter what haircut they get. Now, I want everyone to have that context. I want servers, drive-through cashiers, receptionists, to all get to cut their hair any way they want. That’s definitely not the current culture we have. So I really do try not to hold being from that class position against people. But when people have spent 4 years at a women’s college they don’t owe any money for, they tend to project their own freedom and safety onto everybody else.
I’ve been paying my rent for some years working in a restaurant, and while there two of my coworkers, on separate occasions, reacted to a butch woman walking into the restaurant by turning to me and saying “I hate dykes.” One of those coworkers was a straight guy, the other was a gay man. I had a female coworker who wore no makeup and a customer submitted a comment card about her that said something like, “that dyke has such an attitude.” (My coworker is a straight girl.) Now the restaurant I have been working at has a significant gay clientele, but it’s mostly gay men, and my experience is gay men don’t like gnc women. Or at least what I can tell you is when my gay coworker said that to me it was nowhere close to the first time I’ve heard a gay man be hostile about lesbians.
I’ve also been attending a grad program where a significant amount of the professors and students are deeply Christian. (To be clear, this is a state school, not a university with a religious affiliation.) Now, I’m Christian too these days, but there is just a real difference between a Christian who has had a lot of same sex romances and a Christian who needs someone to explain the word “queer” to them. When I started in this program, in my “Diversity for Counselors” class the professor had never heard the word queer and I ended up teaching it to the class, which, don’t ever do that. I was clueless and didn’t understand how I was participating in othering myself and how that would impact how professors related to me. (Unnerved, sometimes with a strong edge of disgust.)
You would think if any community could understand how economic class affects people’s access to “authentic” gender expression it would be the trans community, right? But the trans community has a huge class division between the leadership and the, I guess, rank and file. Working class trans people can’t access leadership roles in the trans community, in part because the first step to building a career in LGBT activism is an unpaid internship in DC, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, sometimes Philadelphia. There’s a track for people whose parents can sustain them through an unpaid internship, and that track does eventually lead to making choices about organizational priorities. There’s a good reason why there are so many more pediatric gender clinics in this country than trans-specific shelters and transitional housing programs, and that has to do with both who and what the funders judge to be important. Kids from upper and middle class families and their right to a “gender congruent” high school experience for some reason is a much more photogenic narrative than the 40 year old who needs housing.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because an acquaintance of mine who told my sister I was a “bigot” for this detransition stuff came into my restaurant as a customer. This is an awful part of serving, that anyone can come into the restaurant. What might not be apparent from this blog or the videos, is that I’m a real person and I live in a little liberal bubble where people are very into being trans allies, and where class differences are glossed over because they make those same people very uncomfortable. In that context people assume that my gender presentation has to do with some reaching for authenticity. But frankly when I was a receptionist at that informed consent clinic where every other trans-masculine person had family money to fall back on, I decided my economic reality meant I had to pin my authenticity on action rather than appearance.
This guy came in with his trans sibling. You could read his trans sibling a couple of different ways. They would have fit in completely at Blood and Visions. You better believe that felt unfair to me, the bigot, running around in makeup serving tables so that gay men don’t whisper to each other about “that dyke’s attitude.” I’ve considered at long length whether my sense I need to cultivate a feminine presentation to be safe is masochism, and honestly, I don’t think it has been. I think it’s been realism. I think I understand a little bit better than most people the contexts I’ve been operating in.
My priority is getting done, each day, what I’ve chosen to get done. I make choices about my presentation based on what will aid my effectiveness. I feel authentic when I’m effective.
This is surprisingly hard for a lot of people to grok, even other detransitioners. It’s kind of painful that this is so hard for people to grok. I don’t do my eyebrows because I’m “femme” and it brings me joy and meaning. It’s a-ok with me if that is what doing eyebrows is about for you, because I want you to find joy and meaning. I just don’t approach my appearance that way anymore and I do not want to go back to a place where I’m trying to communicate who I am through my presentation. Just because that’s never come close to working for me. To know who I am, you have to be good at active listening and put in a lot of time with me. Meaning, you have to be intimate with me to understand my motivations, my limitations, my patterns, my context.
You know in the Atlantic mini-doc, that shot of me looking in the mirror right at the start? The producer had a list of shots his bosses wanted him to get, which I managed to catch a glimpse of. I really did not want to give him that shot. I think that shot, which you see in literally all visual media about trans people, is hack. It’s such a lazy cliche. I don’t spend my life endlessly considering myself in the mirror. I plan what I have to get done that day, I go to the mirror, I put on what will help me get my to-do list done, the same way the producer’s bosses do. My process at the mirror is the same process they do, because like them, I’m a person with agency who gets shit done. (You wouldn’t know that from the mini-doc, all you would suss out about me is bad shit constantly happens to passive little me.)
I gave him that shot literally on the morning he was leaving town out of….I’m not sure, some irrational sense of guilt. I can’t explain why I would feel guilt for not giving the video department at the Atlantic a hacky shot. I guess irrational guilt is another aspect of my context.
What I should’ve learned from these past 6 years is that people who are safely ensconced in a majority experience desperately want people having minority experiences to be an “other” in some fundamental, inherent way. They want it to be that you are driven by different needs and want different things from life and that’s why all these bad things have come your way. They want to locate the problem inside of you, rather than acknowledge how your context is not their context. They want to believe if they were in your context they’d be making different choices in it.
Just don’t believe their take on you. They have limited information and a lot of defense mechanisms. Even if no one else cares, you know the context you’re navigating and you can keep yourself alive and growing in that context better than anyone else.