Notes from the Underground
I have uploaded three more PDF issues of the Gender Mosaic newsletter Notes from the Underground (NFTU). The complete list of uploaded NFTUs can be found here.
Transgender Publishing in B.C.
I once wrote an article about trans publishers that started like this: “Trans people have always been pamphleteers. We have a tradition of cheaply produced fiction and informational publications. When we were ignored by the mainstream, or treated with condescension by professional publishing houses, a few brave trans people were communicating to us through – it must be admitted – largely unsophisticated books, booklets and journals.” The miracle of trans publishing, I wrote, is that the importance of our stories far outweighed the books’ somewhat amateurish presentation. (My biggest complaint was the almost universal lack of a proper title page.)
Now that professional publishers have discovered and even solicit books from trans authors, and there is no end to trans folks telling their stories on the internet, I assumed trans publishers would have died out. Imagine my delight at discovering several alive and well in British Columbia and aligned under the website Transgender Publishing. The books have all the hallmarks of the old trans publishing I knew and loved, which is to say the content overrides the presentation.
I just ordered Dancing the Dialectic: True Tales of a Transgender Trailblazer, by Rupert Raj. As one of Canada’s earliest trans activists, Raj’s story would surely be of interest to major publishers. How great that he chose to go with a transgender publishing house! Their books are available through Amazon, but I ordered my copy through their website. It will take longer, but I’d rather send a few extra dollars to my trans brothers and sisters than Jeff Bezos.
I’ll review the book after I’ve read it and add it to the incipient Ottawa Trans Library after. And if it doesn’t have a proper title page, I’ll let you know!
I feel like a woman! Or do I?
Lately I’ve come across several stories about trans women who have transitioned only to find they don’t feel like women anymore. In Juno Roche’s book Trans Power, she tells of searching for her womanhood and not being able to find it, which ultimately leads to her defining herself as simply trans. “I struggled to hold on to the word woman at the start of my transition,” she says, which made me wonder why she kept going on with it. Keep going she did, however, and as she lay post op among trans women delighted with the result of their surgeries, she felt like she “failed yet again at gender.”
In Susan Faludi’s book In the Darkroom, she writes of meeting a fellow who spent over $50,000 on facial feminization surgery only to find he didn’t feel like a woman. He had reverted to living as a man and ruefully admitted that he was probably non-binary. He was chasing that elusive feeling thinking he’d find it with each successive surgery that made him prettier.
Presumably at some point both these people must have felt like women or why pursue this journey in the first place? If they lost it along the way, why did they keep going? It seems to me if you’re always asking, “Do I feel like a woman now? How about now? Do I feel it now?” you may as well give up. On the other hand, they may just be making too big a deal about it.
One of the trans people Roche interviews in the book says, “I seldom think about my gender”. That’s my experience too. My purpose in transitioning was to stop feeling like a woman. My entire life I’d been consumed with this preoccupation, this feeling that I was not living as my true self. I couldn’t take a day off and not think about it. At times my life was unravelling because of it. When I transitioned, it was a huge relief. I no longer had to struggle with feeling like a woman because I was living as one. Peace of mind at last.
I transitioned later in life. Most of my life experience was trans. I never expected after transition to be plunked fully formed into a woman’s life. There is a social tradition of women learning to become women. It’s not just bestowed upon you. You learn it and grow into it; and then the patriarchy forces you to adapt to it. Simone de Beauvoir’s observation, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one” endures because people, especially women, recognize the truth of it. (The same could be said for men too, although that’s not so often acknowledged.)
I have a small collection of ‘how-to-be-a-girl’ books that I acquired many years ago from browsing used book sales and second hand book stores. The oldest one I have was published in 1933 and is titled The Modern Hand Book for Girls. It has all the tips you’d expect on clothes, appearance and etiquette, and yet is also surprisingly progressive. It has chapters on managing your time and money, learning arts and crafts, and how to plan for your career. The advice in the section on “how to get along with boys” is interesting for how it entrenches the roles of boys and girls, and yet it also contains some timeless truths: “Some boys haven’t had an opportunity to learn what girls of the best kind prefer; some may not want to, but they are boys you do not want as friends.”
For a trans woman, saying you “feel like a woman” is always a little fraught anyway. Trying to explain what it means inevitably leads to reducing your experiences and that of the female gender to stereotypes, and from there it’s a short hop to your being accused of being a dupe of the gender binary, revealed as a man in a dress whose conception of women resides only in stereotypes.
I defer to the wisdom of Shania Twain, who appears to know something about it (and who, incidentally, is a friend to the trans community). When she sings “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” she’s just saying I feel good about myself. If you’re living as a woman and are at peace with it, I’d say you were there. Her lyrics aren’t Shakespeare, but they don’t have to be:
No inhibitions, make no conditions
Get a little outta line
I ain’t gonna act politically correct
I only wanna have a good time
The best thing about bein’ a woman
Is the prerogative to have a little fun and
Oh, oh, oh, go totally crazy, forget I’m a lady
Men’s shirts, short skirts
Color my hair, do what I dare
Oh, oh, oh, I wanna be free-yeah, to feel the way I feel
It’s your inner spirit that took you this far. Stand back and let her breathe.
There is a great old Mel Brooks routine which also riffs on this idea. I’m going to modify it for my purposes, but the punch line remains the same. Trans woman goes to her psychiatrist and is worried that she no longer feels like a woman. Psychiatrist tells her, “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.”
Book review: In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
I’m ordinarily skeptical of cisgender writers telling stories about trans folks. However, this book by Susan Faludi about her father who survived the Holocaust and transitioned at age 77, seemed worth reading. In the Darkroom was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, an award Faludi had won previously in 1991.
Faludi was largely estranged from her father after her parents divorced in 1977. She had not spoken to him at all in several years when in 2004 she received an email from her father informing her that she had transitioned. It wasn’t a complete surprise, as a relative had already warned her, but the email must still have been disorienting. Attached to the message were a series of photographs of pre-op Stefanie, and then others taken later during her stay in a Thailand hospital where she’d had the surgery. It was the kind of announcement that might have put off most people, and Faludi had more reasons than most to be put off.
While married to her mother, Faludi’s father was not a nice man, He was inscrutable and sometimes violent. Nonetheless, she still chose to establish a relationship with her after her transition. The parent-child bond is not easily relinquished, but I suspect Faludi’s journalistic need to know also compelled her to do so. “Was I afraid of how changed I’d find my father? Or of the possibility that she wouldn’t have changed at all, that he would still be there, skulking beneath the dress.”
Her father had been a photographer in the United States, but returned to Hungary – her birth country – after the fall of communism. It was probably inevitable that Faludi would be questioning her father’s authenticity as a woman the moment she met her at Budapest airport in the summer of 2004. She observes how her father had taken her pocketbook off her shoulder and hung it from a hook on the luggage cart: “My first thought, and it shames me, was: no woman would do that.” Her silent critique of her father continues in the way Faludi describes in minute detail each outfit she wore, as if to highlight its absurdity. I was a little annoyed with this initially, but her father didn’t win me over either. She held many stereotypical views on women and was astonishingly insensitive to how Faludi might feel when she saw her walking around in her favourite and not entirely closed crimson bathrobe.
Although she doesn’t say so, there must have been a small enough change in her father to allow Faludi to pursue a relationship that had broken down and appeared a few years earlier to be hopeless. As the story unfolds, we are sent on a journey through Hungarian history, and the sorry plight of Hungarian Jews during World War II, until finally her father gradually reveals her experiences and at times heroic actions during that horrible time. The book also has a section on Faludi’s own education in trans identity which, focused as it was on early memoirs by trans women who exulted in feminine stereotypes and others who proved to be not so sure of their identities, suggested to me that she was merely confirming in her own mind her doubt about the authenticity of her father’s life as a woman.
The book is a journey of growth however, both for Faludi and her father, and there lies its greatest reward. Her father never wavers from his female identity, and when he dies in a hospital that “appeared more Bedlam than beneficent”, Faludi is “oddly comforted by the knowledge that my father had died here in the female wing, surrounded by women.”
From a trans perspective, I was prone occasionally to nitpick at parts of this book, but Faludi is a good writer and an astute observer, and as I read along I developed a trust that she would tell the story with nuance. In that she succeeded.
Attention Creatives: Gender Inclusion the theme for RISE community project
We are a group of 12 ambassadors of RISE, a Canada Service Corps-funded program from the nonpartisan organization Apathy is Boring. RISE brings together youth in 7 cities across Canada to co-create community projects, each year with a different theme. This year, our theme is Gender Inclusion. Our projects are to be launched sometime in late November to early December of this year.
‘Unlearning Journey’ is a digital publication meant to showcase the creative expressions of two-spirit, trans, and non-binary folks. In challenging common beliefs about gender, we divest from its limits; and in embarking on our Unlearning Journey, we reclaim all of its possibilities. Our mission is to create space for gendered experiences, identities, and futurities that exist beyond the binary.
Thank you so much for participating! All responses are anonymous and will not be used beyond the purpose of this survey.
Here is the link to the survey.
Backxwash wins Polaris Music Prize
Backxwash has been awarded the 2020 Polaris Music Prize for her album God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It. Backxwash is the stage name of Montreal-based Black trans woman Ashanti Mutinta. The Polaris Music Prize honours artists who produce Canadian music albums of distinction regardless of genre or sales. Her album “blends gothic elements of rap and metal music with her own personal experiences with faith, family and her queer identity.”
It’s heartening to see the arts and entertainment community step up and begin to acknowledge diverse voices, but by any measure this is a wonderful achievement for Ashanti Mutinta. Congratulations!
The Roaming Ratchet
October 2020 – Great story on the CBC Ottawa site about non-binary mechanic Kai Dean of Merrickville. Dean has a mobile auto maintenance business called The Roaming Ratchet. They were responding to the sometimes negative experiences LGBT folks receive from auto garage shops. Good call. The business has been a great success so far.
(Last) thoughts on the gender binary
I wonder sometimes whether I’m the only trans person not obsessed with the gender binary. Yes, I know. If we could overthrow this oppressive structure we’ll destroy the patriarchy and all our problems will be solved. While it is comforting to think we have one diabolical enemy, fighting it is tantamount to tilting at windmills. It might be more prudent to regard it as something we need to live with, like a stubbornly persistent case of eczema.
To understand why, we need to define what we’re talking about. Here’s the wikipedia definition, which I think is fairly uncontroversial. “Gender binary (also known as gender binarism, binarism, or genderism) is the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite forms of masculine and feminine, whether by social system or cultural belief.” You can see how this causes us problems, but the “social system or cultural belief” part also explains why it is so stubbornly persistent. The gender binary is not a government that can be toppled. Social systems and cultural beliefs are not things that will be altered in your lifetime.
Maybe they don’t need to be. Maybe by fighting for our rights and being who we are, we are creating a space in which our reality can co-exist with the gender binary, something along the lines of the indigenous people’s Two Spirit traditions, for example. When people are allowed to live outside the gender binary, the grip it has on society is necessarily loosened. It permits those who grow up in it to opt out of it if they choose. It would still not, however, cause it to collapse.
Let’s be honest. Cisgender, heterosexual folks invest a lot of time and energy in being men and women. Traditional gender roles are constantly being reinforced through the media, religion, education, and politics. Indeed, the personalities of many men and women, and consequently their genders, roughly align with their sex. They enjoy the game of male and female, or they think they do. We may think gender reveal parties are stupid, but who are we to ruin their fun?
More seriously, gender roles evolved through time and many of them are highly misogynistic. That has of necessity created woman as a political category. It’s ironic that to fight against a social system in which they have been marginalized, women need to organize under the gender binary. It’s a frustrating, complex and ubiquitous force that overlays everything we do.
There is no simple strategy that will bring down the gender binary. In that sense, it’s pointless to rail against it. It is useful, however, to remind people of its shortcomings. There will always be refugees fleeing from its oppressive restrictions. That we’re living in a time when that is increasingly possible means our perseverance and small victories have made an impact. It may be appear impregnable, but trans and gender diverse people have shown that the gender binary is not beyond reform.
Trans activists in the US
October 2020 – The Guardian is running an intermittent series on trans activists and their leadership roles in many of the protest and justice movements in the US. The recent profile was about Emily Gorcenski, a data scientist who has been tracking and cataloguing white supremacist violence through her web site First Vigil. “Using court files and other public records, the anti-fascist researcher has catalogued hundreds of criminal cases, connected the dots of dangerous neo-Nazi networks, and revealed links that journalists and authorities have missed.”
The article also contains links to the previous stories in this series.
Bill to ban conversion therapy introduced
October 2020 – The Liberal Party has reintroduced a bill that would ban conversion therapy, the practise of attempting to alter people’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill was removed from the House of Commons agenda when the Liberals prorogued Parliament in August, and has the support of the NDP. While Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said conversion therapy was wrong and should be banned, he accused the Liberals of playing wedge politics to expose those in the Conservative caucus who would vote against it.
It’s a little rich of O’Toole to complain considering he courted supporters of “social conservative” MP Derek Sloan to win the recent Conservative leadership contest. During his run for the leadership, Sloan claimed the bill “promoted gender-reassignment surgery and criminalized conversations between parents and their kids.”
As long as the Conservative Party of Canada continues to welcome “social conservatives” with extreme views into their fold, the sincerity of their support for LGBT folks will be suspect. They appear more concerned about their own political fortunes than the well-being of LGBT people.