Monday, 25 August 2008

gender panic-mine

We went to a movie last night, a documentary about three people transitioning to male called “Boy I Am”. (What a great title, huh?) It covers a lot of interesting ground—the intersection of race and class with transitioning genders, taking testosterone, undergoing top surgery, navigating relationships with partners and family—in a thoughtful way.

During the movie itself, I kept shifting around, absolutely could not get comfortable in my seat. Afterwards, there was an audience discussion, and I found myself unable to say anything at all. T. said some interesting things about femmes, her older friend whose partner transitioned, and some other stuff. It was a safe space to talk, you know? But I was silent as the grave.

Partly I was afraid of offending the transguys there. The drawback to the movie, in my opinion, was that it used Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam as basically the sole representative of butches. (Halberstam is the author of, among other things, Female Masculinity, which I read this spring and found utterly liberating.) So it was too easy to conflate butch vs. transman with older vs. younger and real-life person vs. theoretical academic. (Just as a series of comparisons, not as oppositions.)

And since just about all the butches in the audience elected not to stay for the discussion... well, there I was, not wanting to recreate any border wars (butches are the real, the brave, the subversive embodiment of female masculinity! butches are just ftms in waiting, too wimpy to really do it!).

But also, I felt surprisingly emotional and conflicted about the whole topic. Shaking hands with a transguy afterwards, I found myself panicking when I realized my grip was firmer than his: is that butch-ly overcompensation? Does he think I’m a pathetic pussy, relying on an iron grip to mask my lack of ‘real’ male signifiers? (Please pardon the misuse of pussy; it’s what occurred to me at the time, sadly enough.) I’m so used to defending my right to masculinity against straight cis-men—why did I fall apart at the imagined judgments of transmen, who I would think I have far more of a natural alliance with?

If you’ve been reading for a while, you know that my embrace of masculinity and butchness itself is a relatively recent and hard-fought thing. But the movie, plus a weekend in which I looked at a lot of old photographs, made me reflect what a long fight it’s been, too.

I thought about transitioning in college, in a vague, confused way. At one point in the movie, Halberstam says if someone had offered her testosterone at 19, she would have taken it; the implication was that she’s glad now she didn’t. I sympathize with that. I was so lost at 19, in terms of gender.

The movie focused a lot on top surgery, and oddly enough, that’s always been one of the least attractive things about transitioning to me, in a physical sense. A deeper voice, narrower hips, more muscle? OK, sounds cool; at times, I’ve desperately wanted those things.

But I’m really fond of my breasts. They’re not very big, but they’re not invisibly small either. They were just about the only part of a female puberty I was genuinely enthusiastic about. For some reason, they seemed unequivocally mine, a friendly presence there on my chest. How I got this in a culture that packages up breasts and turns them into objects-of-male-gaze par excellence, I can’t tell you. But I feel comforted by their presence, hidden under layers of just t-shirt and shirt back in the day, tucked into a gentle sports bra now that I’m not a skinny-ass teenager anymore. I like the way they’re small enough not to interrupt the fall of my dress shirts from my shoulders too much, yet still present and visible, confirming the female half of the female masculinity thing.

So my confused 19-year-old self thought: but to transition I’d have to lose my breasts! I can’t do that! I’ll just have to be a woman, full stop, end of story, stopping mucking about with boyishness!

Which brought its own set of troubles, because really, I feel somewhere in between. I want my breasts and my masculinity. I want to grow up to be just like Jack Halberstam. I just didn’t think a well-made documentary and a room of well-meaning, kind-hearted transmen and their allies would bring all that anxious confusion rushing back to me.

I might lose my nerve and take this picture down, but for now, here’s a reward for anyone who’s read this far through my little identity crisis: me and T., dancing at a wedding in the mists of the past. It’s incredible but true: we had NO IDEA what butch-femme even was when this picture was taken. You’ll just have to take my word for that.


femmeismygender said...

Personally I find the combination of breasts AND female masculinity utterly delicious! :-)
And CUTE photo, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I read Female Masculinity this spring also, what a great book.

I agree with femmeismygender, delicious is a fitting word. I love how you stay true to yourself like you do, never stop.

Awww, you two. You kids just melt me. Oh, and I love that suit!

Anonymous said...

You teo are super cute. You're still that cute in person. You make me smile and have hope. Thanks. Coem visit again! I miss you.

tongue-tied said...

ok, so i'm not a women's studies sort anyway, and so much of the identification stuff seems so academic to me. you know, how warm do the words keep you during a cold, dark night of the soul anyway?

my friend, here's a quote from Dolly Parton, of all people, that has done me a lot of good:
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”

which i take to mean, find a way to not worry who or what anybody else thinks you are, make peace with yourself, and get on with being what makes you feel right in the world. wrapping yourself up in identifying ideas limits who you allow yourself to be.

break the imaginary rules!
refuse to conform to arbitrary designations!
write love songs to your perfect breasts!

you, sir, rock!

appple said...

i saw boy i am in new york a little over 2 years ago. my (not yet then) gf was friendly with the producers and suggested we check it out. (it turned into a date and the rest is history) but i love the film for its existence and i'm glad it's getting seen. many of the people featured live and work in brooklyn and are very visible members of the community.

thanks for the picture, it's really brave of you to post, and i hope you don't take it down! put up more! more more more!

Jess said...

Wow.. loved this post and the pic. You two look so sweet together.

Thanks for sharing this. I vote for you to keep it up!

I think it's great that you are actually fond of your breasts.. me, not so much.

Just do you, buddy boy.

Jess said...

oh. abt the movie.. I want to see it.

I would probably have been silent too. Though I'd like to think I would have joined the discussion.

Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

i think it is common for similarity to be more unnerving than difference. i mean that being "defensive" (to straight cis-men, as you say) is easier than trying to defend yourself from someone who isn't (or shouldn't be) hostile. but also that the closer someone is to what you are/seem to be/want to be/think you should be/think other people think you should be, the more it can get under your skin.

and oh my, what a beautiful picture! y'all are so cute!

Leo MacCool said...

femme: thanks!

greg: we really kids then, too. thanks.

belle: you're back!!! miss you too. i'm sure we'll be back in the big apple soon.

tongued-tied: wise words, as always. i feel like i'm getting there, and then things like this get me all confused again. although i think words have, on occasion, kept me warm in my soul's night, actually. ;) but the trick seems to be, finding one's own words, relating to others but not insisting on lock-step identifications. and you rock, too.

appple: we are on some kind of mental wavelength thing, you know? because your last comment reminded me of the moment i fell in love with t. and now, i'm posting about your first date movie. it is an awesome film--if you see any of the people involved, tell 'em we loved it up here in boston.

jess: thanks. ok, ok, i'll leave the pic up. for now.

lady brett: you're completely right, that's it exactly. with the straight cis-guys it's hey, i'm not you, i'm me, you wanna make something of it? but with the transguys, it was: should that be me? am i doing 'me' wrong?

Anonymous said...

I was having a conversation with a femme friend yesterday about how so many young butches are now transitioning and why that is. That’s a long discussion, but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed this post and I can see how being in that situation would bring up some questioning and doubts. I think you’re right to note that there’s a lot you probably have in common with a trans guy, but you’ve ultimately come to some different decisions- ones that work for you now and you’re free to change and adapt as feels right to you at any given time. It’s all fluid. I think it would be interesting to hear some more (or any) dialogue between butches and trans guys. And good for you for liking your breasts- I find breasts on a butch woman attractive.

Anonymous said...

I want to add my voice to those who've already written to applaud you, and thank you for sharing this experience with us all. You asked, "I’m so used to defending my right to masculinity against straight cis-men—why did I fall apart at the imagined judgments of transmen, who I would think I have far more of a natural alliance with?"

One thought: The relationship between transmen and butches/lesbians has been so fraught in some circles that the idea of a "natural alliance" seems to work much better in theory than practice.

That said, it sounds to me like you were very brave in a situation that brought up a lot of difficult, even painful issues. I think Lady B is right about similarity, but could it also be that your "gender panic" was also about difference--i.e. the feeling that you and other butches were being "othered" to some degree?

And by the way, happy birthday. You have a lot to look forward to. The 30s are a great decade, and you're going to get stronger and stronger!

Your critiques of the film are very insightful.

Leo MacCool said...

aconsumingdesire, that's a really good point about things changing over time, and the importance of being open to those changes, or at least accepting their reality. darn, that buddhist stuff is so useful. ;) i agree on the need for actual dialogue--i'm disappointed, actually, that i didn't manage to have any at the film, which would have been an obvious place to start

sublimefemme: oh, it's so complicated! i'm starting to think it's partly just a turf battle. we're similar enough to occupy very close positions on a lot of gender and social spectrums but then we're different, too, so it's easy to get into an elbowing match over who gets what patch of the 'gender galaxy'. thanks for stopping by! i'm really enjoying your blog.

Clementine said...

That picture is precious! Y'all are adorable.

Also, I've always loved Dolly Parton but now I think I love her a little more. "Find out who you are and do it on purpose." That's a pretty good motto, eh?

I admire your courage in exploring your gender and questioning your place inside or outside traditional gender constructs. It's tough work you're doing, but it's vitally important.

Sublimefemme said...

I just add you to my blogroll. I'm looking forward to reading more.

Leo MacCool said...

thanks, clementine. :)

femmecolleen said...

I was just talking to a butch friend of mine the other day about this idea she has of putting together a butch conference (like the femme conference that just happened in Chicago), and we talked about the prospect of transmen attending and participating. It definitely seems that there's quite a bit of discomfort between butches and transmen these days, and it seems like something that needs to be talked about, you know? As a femme, I love ALL my bois and butches, and it hurts my heart that I can't really bring them together in social space very much because of all the STUFF that hangs in the air when I do, you know?

Anyway, from what I can tell, there are a lot of butch women who get uncomfortable in the same way you did when there's transmen around, and it seems to make them sad, too. I'm glad you're talking about it; maybe more people will start talking about it, too.

Chef TinaMarie said...

Hey thanx for stopping by my site...

I've read through from present to this post and thought I'd finally comment. I totally get where you are coming from!

When I was a kid I used to question my gender. I was made to feel and accept that just because I loved sports and boy things that I should be called a Tom-Boy...Messed with my mind!

It wasn't until I started developing my small, but beautiful breasts that I felt like a girl at all.

Today at 42yrs old I have learned to embrace both genders. I decided why limit or label myself. Some days I feel more masculine where I will act and dress that manner. Especially when my hair is super short and I have my ass kickin' boots on.
Then there are days when I feeling girly. I will blow dry my hair, put on makeup, girly clothes, push up bra with a button down shirt, showing dare I say some cleavege!

Just be you Leo!

Keep the pic up...U 2 R cute together!