Thursday, 29 January 2009

Best Damn Dog

Tuesday would have been 18th birthday of my First True Canine Love. (There has not yet been a second, for the record, though I'm still dreaming of a shepherdish mutt in my future...) She came into my life the spring of my sixth grade year, not an otherwise happy time. My family was moving (houses, not towns) and my best friend (and first proper crush, ahem) had just moved out of state and... well, I was a total mess, socially, as all this girl/puberty stuff started catching up with me. Anyway, along came this awesome puppy, who became mostly my responsibility. She had stitches on her chin from an unfortunate encounter with another dog early in life (she was scrappy like that) and I would put a cream on it each evening and sing her to sleep. In the morning I woke up early and threw a ball for her as long as I could before school. She was instantly the love of my life.

She was a smart, funny dog. A wicked escape artist who could dig under anything, who would wriggle her way through any hole, and who would wander out through any open door. She swam like a champion and we dog-paddled side-by-side every summer of my adolescence. Cocky like me, she would actually chase after flying birds, and one winter almost got herself killed that way, launching herself into a fast-moving little ocean channel in pursuit of a seagull. She went under, as I tore after her, but before I got there she'd regained some footing and pulled herself out. She was tough as nails, in her way.

We walked hundreds of miles together during my high school years, along the edge of the roads of the little town where I grew up. She was never really well-trained--I think she was too smart and willful for that--but we understood each other. I remember the sense of calm companionship we had, three or four miles into a properly long walk, both of us having worked out the restlessness and settled into an even stride. Those walks are a series of happy memories from an otherwise very difficult time.

She slept in my bed or next to it just about every night. FG was not always happy about this, nor about her tendency to lick my face and attempt licking FG's face as well. It never bothered me, though.

I missed her like crazy when I went to college--I didn't live at home again, since I moved in with FG immediately after my freshman year, and so I didn't live with my dog again, either. I called in sick when she was dying, got on the first train I could out of New York and went to be with her. I spent her last night sleeping next to her on the floor, listening to her struggle to get enough air into her lungs, and I held her as she died the next day, euthanized by one of the vets I'd worked for in high school.

I still miss her. She was sassy and awesome and one of the best friends I've ever had. She had this look of confidence that I used to joke was her way of saying, "I'm the best damn dog YOU'LL ever have." And you know, I think she was right.

Best Damn Dog (1991-2004) (with half-sister in the background)

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Here Be (No) Dragons

And now for something completely different. A while back, there was some silliness on Twitter. It started when the lovely and multitalented Femme Is My Gender mentioned that she would be cooking Red Dragon Pie and offered the recipe to my own darling FreedomGirl.

Ever the chivalrous provider, I of course leapt from my desk and began to don my Red Dragon Slaying Gear. Yet just a few tweets later I discovered the name of the pie is a mere metaphor. In fact the pie is vegetarian, to the everlasting scorn of staunch carnivores Tina and Kyle.

But once Red Dragon Slaying Gear has been mentioned, what are butches to do? Discuss swords, of course. Holden weighed in, we heard about Kyle's all-conquering Sword of Love, and Jessie's damned impressive sword collection was enumerated. Natt Nightly's own sword collection is of course legendary as well.

And there it all would have stayed, if I had not been lured by SaintChick into promising to post a picture of me in my own Dragon Slaying Gear. I stalled, but she called me to task in her last comment, and quite rightly, too.

I am here today to make good my vow to the fair lady. Without further ado, here I am, in Dragon Slaying Gear (also known as my Inigo Montoya costume). All I can say is: that mustache deserves a better sword. And I think this picture stands as final proof, I really would do anything a beautiful femme asked, however difficult, painful, or, um, humiliating.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Sexual Freedom & Autonomy: A Stone Perspective

What does a stone butch have to say about sexual freedom and autonomy?

What don’t I have to say about those things?

I accepted the label of stone around the same time I embraced the identity of butch. In both cases it seemed like a matter of accuracy. I’ve written pages and pages now about being butch but very little about being stone.

Which only makes sense. We do silence well. She does give me pleasure, oh my god she does, but you won’t hear about it from me, not even if you’re standing next to the bed. I know my face gives me away to her. That’s my version of surrender.

I have a female body. In this world that means I’m by definition made to be penetrated and fucked. My refusal constitutes the very basis of my sexual autonomy. The pleasure and joy that many female-bodied people take in being penetrated, in receiving sex, in being fucked, is a beautiful thing. I’m in awe of it and grateful for it. But I do not want that.

My sexuality is not only about refusal. The silence into which I coax her murmurs and cries and maybe eventually screams: that is my sexuality, too. And the hundred ways she has of stoking my desire just by how she moves herself under me. The exquisite moment when my hips fall down into hers and our movements match. And those tiny fissures—the look on my face or the change in my breathing or the thrusts I’m no longer consciously controlling—out of which my love pours onto her. Those things are also my sexuality and my sexual freedom.

What is this thing called stone? When I read Stone Butch Blues (by Leslie Feinberg) I felt the constant assaults on the main character viscerally. The whole book, it seemed to me, could be summarized as a balancing act between the strength and liberation she gains as she builds up the stone necessary to protect herself and her bittersweet longing for Theresa to come back and finally melt her stone. I think ‘stone’ means different things at different moments in that book, and perhaps in my life, too.

The trust and vulnerability I can bring to my intimacy with FG is precious to me. But I have and I do and I will lash out at her, even her, if the core of inviolability that the stone protects seems to be in danger.

This spring, when everything was in play, I experimented a little bit with those boundaries. One attempt at penetration, one only. You can read about it here. I wrote then about the emotional fallout: “The pain, a lot of it, came from: how I hated being the girl I was required to be, inoffensive, acquiescent. The desolating dawning realization in childhood that the stakes of my success were staggeringly high (love, for starters). She touched the place in me I held safe behind barbed wire and alarm sirens while the girl (me) was doing what she had to do.” There’s an implicit offer of catharsis in that post but in fact there was no follow-up, not really, unless you count a more recent and random meltdown after a less-planned loss of autonomy in bed.

I don’t think we’re butch or femme or gay or stone or kinky or anything else in some simple causal chain that can be followed back to childhood. I don’t devalue the complexities of our adult sexualities with: oh, ze must have been abused as a child. That’s garbage, deeply damaging and insulting garbage.

But I tried to write this post many times without going into the dark places that are summoned up when my sexual boundaries are crossed. And frankly it doesn’t make sense. There’s no neat narrative here, only fragments tossed up from within my own mind and memory. A picture of me as a small child, under four, on my mother’s lap, doubled up over the arm she has around my waist. I remember how my scowling frown felt from inside, the desperate need to stop being touched around my hips. I still feel that way, I can’t stand being held fast there. The e-mail correspondence I had with my older brother (not the one I've written about before on this blog, but the other one, older than me by fourteen years) in which he first revealed that my father had told him I “had been under a lot of psychological pressure” as child but had “found ways to deflect it and create [my] own safe space.” And the transient sense of trust that e-mail evoked, which led me to be more honest with my brother than I ever had been. Which led him to reveal that he always wondered if his falling out with my mother (his stepmother) stemmed from an incident when he was playing with me when I was three or four, and he (accidentally, by his account) touched my crotch, and I told him not to touch me there. Which led me to end the correspondence. What am I supposed to do with that memory? I feel ill even contemplating it. And then all the shame and lack of power over my own body as regards my mother. How I had to fight to be allowed to stop bathing with her at an age well past the usual ending point for such a thing. Her rage when any part of my body was visible in any way that might be remotely construed as sexual in front of my father or later my stepfather.

These are only the most coherent, the best documented, the most verifiable, of a range of shadowy memories and impressions, all centered on fear and shame and the urgency to protect that safe internal space at any cost. I don’t know what any of it means. This is not a disclosure of some special, distinct narrative of sexual abuse; I don’t have any such thing. All I have are the specific dynamics of shame, control, and desire that existed in my particular family, and a hazy sense of the lines that connect those dynamics to the person I have become.

But I know that that sense of urgency persists and is no longer able to be disentangled from my sexual and gender identities. As I told FG recently during a very difficult conversation: “I would rather never have another orgasm with a woman again than be somehow made not whole or violated or controlled by that experience.”

I’ve been writing this post, in my head and on paper, for days now and I’m still not pleased with it. Because being stone isn’t all about suffering or trauma and I think this post might still suggest that it is.

What I really want to say is two separate things. First of all, we bear the weight of our individual histories of shame and lack of autonomy. Sexual freedom and autonomy are radically limited by where we come from. And second, the sexual autonomy of the stone butch is a minority thing, a rare experience of embodiment and boundary-setting; but it’s real and sometimes painful and sometimes ecstatic and I want to share that with you all who have been with me on this journey.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Love Letter to the Other Butches

There's never only one beginning to a story. But if there were, I would have to say that the story of this blog (or, of my journey into gender acceptance) began with a butch. The Catalyst, I called her at the time, the one who shattered the glass bubble of my isolation. I met her on a Friday night and bought my first men's dress shirt on Saturday morning. She was the first person to call me a butch, too, decisively stating that it was obvious in how I moved, how I held myself, my very energy. I think she might have saved my life.

Since then I've had the good fortune of meeting and getting to know other butches as well and every time it's like a little miracle to me. The sense of quiet in my head, the knowledge that I'm not alone and that someone in the room has my back in a way no one else can. And the way we can play, goof around, show off--somehow snowball fights are instantly inevitable--just be the boys we are--in the most relaxing way possible. (Nothing to prove, no one wondering why that girl is tagging along and trying to keep up.)

And then there's the understanding and the shared experience. Here's a little anecdote about that. My brother didn't want me to be 'out' at his wedding. He invited FG (this being just a few months after our own ceremony, which he attended) but he didn't want to have to explain to his new wife's (foreign, non-English-speaking) family that we were a couple, that we were married. "They wouldn't have understood," he told me later. "If I had told them you were married, they'd have thought you were a male transvestite." Well, I thought, but a particularly unambitious one. (I wore female clothes to his wedding but strictly shirt and pants still.) Anyway I've told this story to two different butch friends. And both reacted almost the same way. One winced, as though I'd thrown cold water in her face, and nodded slowly, swallowing as though she could taste my pain bitter in her own mouth. And the other winced, too, and brought her hand instinctively to her chest: "That stings."

We know the geography of one another's pain. We have the same dark maps etched in our own souls.

My buddy Jess wrote a brave post today asking for help in getting top surgery; click over and check it out. Asking for help is so much harder, in my experience, than simply drowning in pride. I admire Jess enormously and this post reinforces that. And reconciling our transmasculine, genderqueer souls with our bodies (and all the social expectations our bodies incur) is no simple matter, I know that too well from personal experience. The saving grace is that we are here for one another.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

A Name I Call Myself

Back in September I wrote about my frustration with my name. I compared my first name to a gray wool skirt: unambiguously female though not over-the-top feminine, plain and perhaps lovely in its own way but just not me. As a kid I remember saying I hated my name--I wanted to change it to Jacqueline and be nicknamed Jackie at one point, I recall. And throughout my adult life I've had this delayed-reaction response to hearing my name; it just doesn't sound like me, to my own ears. I'm like, who? Who is that girl? Oh, right, me. Sort of.

Anyway, when I wrote that post, I was very very tentatively trying out a nickname that a new friend had suggested for me. (For some reason it's very important to me that the nickname was suggested by someone else. And this is a particularly insightful, gentle individual too, which makes it that much more meaningful.) Over the course of the fall I tried it out more and more--giving it as my name at coffee shops, and then when meeting new acquaintances. I knew I'd reaching a turning point when someone started to introduce using my old name and I interrupted them, thinking, "Don't you fucking dare."

FG made the switch around then. (Like I said, she almost never called me by my old name, anyway.) Over the past month I've started introducing old friends to the new nickname. It's like a mini-coming-out all over again. I tell them I've acquired a nickname, that I really like it and that the old name never quite fit, and that I'd be very pleased if they'd use it, too.

At first I thought the nickname would be for friends, and the old name for family & professional contacts. But it was quickly apparent that those lines are blurry in reality. Plus, my old name started to seem increasingly alien and even annoying when I'd hear it from random people.

When I registered for the conference a couple of weeks ago, the form gave an option for distinguishing between "First Name" and "First Name on Badge". Um. Looks like a sign or something. I bit the bullet and contacted my academic advisor, who officially should win some kind of award for awesomeness. Ze wrote back immediately, using my nickname, offering total support and understanding--and then called to talk it over as well. I mean, damn. And the whole conference, whenever we talked or ze introduced me to people, ze used the nickname, as did another main mentor who was also there. It touched me so much I actually wanted to cry. (I'm using "ze" to protect hir anonymity a bit, ze is in no way queer or genderqueer.)

The nickname feels right, now. It feels like an appropriate name, something people can call me and I can respond. For the first time I wore a name tag and didn't wince when I saw it, wasn't desperate to get it off my body at the end of the day. In fact it's on my desk at home now, where I can see it. When I introduce myself, I feel like I'm actually introducing myself, not some imaginary feminine version of myself. I feel like I'm shedding the albatross of that version, slowly, slowly, and the name is a major part of that.

I haven't told any of my family yet except for my dad, who sort of stared at me and then proposed an entirely different nickname that he could call me. Whatever, that's fine, too. He's a little odd with names and calls FG by a unique nickname, too, so I think that's OK. I think my mom and grandparents are a special case; my mom chose the old name, for starters. I don't necessarily expect them to use the new nickname, but just to understand that it is my nickname, so that FG can use it in front of them, for instance. I'm planning to talk it over with my mom when she and I have dinner later this month. I think I can do it in a way she'll understand. My brothers might be more of a stumbling block, particularly the one I have more issues with (have I written about that here?). My nickname relates to our shared last name so there could be some patriarchal issues there--like who am I, youngest and female, to lay so thorough a claim to that name.

Most friends have been very cool with it, as has most of FG's family. A few friends have actually seemed touched that I'm sharing this new part of myself with them, and pleased with the invitation to use the nickname, which is sort of cool. I'm not worried about people slipping up--I mean, of course they will. One very old friend (like I've known him a long time) seemed disoriented, joked a bit, and now is avoiding using any name, as far as I can tell... but hey, we've been friends for over twenty years, we'll sort it out.

But there have been a few hiccups. Of course there have been. ::segue into rant section of post:: FG's mom was, apparently, pretty dismissive--"I don't have to call her that, do I?" "It's just--it would be like someone nicknaming you Biff!" Like, how does that analogy work? Because nicknaming FG 'Biff' would be ridiculous? De-femininizing? What exactly?

More troubling is another friend. I told him about it relatively early on, when I was still unsure about the friend/professional divide, and he wrote an email using it, but adding "I'm not sure I like this". OK, whatever. But then we were at the conference together, where it was on my nametag, and I introduced myself using the nickname in front of him. When I signed an email to him recently using my nickname, he responded: "for the time being, i think i'll stick to [old name]. don't know about this [nickname] thing, yet..."

I gotta say, it made me mad. I admit I left him an out in my initial email. I don't want to overreact, but I also want to let him know that it actually matters to me. It's not simply a question of how he feels about it, or what he thinks of the two names' merits. It's about his respect for my decision and my right to make it. I remember he was surprised when a fellow colleague changed her name upon marriage, but I doubt he insists on the 'right' to use her maiden name. More than that, it really calls into question our friendship. I've tried to share with him some of the changes I've gone through in the last year, and mostly, it's been quite unsuccessful, and I've been surprised at his conservatism, actually.

More generally, I'm angry at his response and FG's mom's response because they remind me how much of my time and energy I've wasted trying not to make people uncomfortable, trying to embody the fake feminine version of me that is named [oldname] just to please them or placate them, hiding my real self behind a fortress to prevent their rejection or ridicule getting near me. This post is too long as it is but this is a major, major issue for me and one that, nowadays, makes me just incandescently furious. I don't need, I guess, to explode that all over my recalcitrant friend, but any hints on how to react, besides "Well, fuck you, too," would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

A Whole Week

... into the new year, and no new post from me. And it's not that I haven't been up to things. Here's a random bullets update of all the excitement 2009 has offered up so far.
  • I got sick. I can't really complain, it's been like over a year since I was sick. But I felt plenty bad for myself, what with all the sneezing and coughing and general grossness. I hate being sick.
  • Being sick meant that I completely flaked out on the New Year's Eve party we were going to attend. It was really cold and snowy here that night and I just wasn't up to the walk to the subway and all of it. I didn't get my midnight kiss because I was asleep. But before we fell asleep, there was a whole lot more than kissing. There's something to be said for staying in (bed) on New Year's Eve.
  • I attended a professional conference and it went well. I'm feeling better about my profession than I have for a long while, recession be damned. There are queer and genderqueer people in my profession, I just have to put a little more effort into meeting them and connecting with them.
  • Not one but two of my professional mentors told me to be gentle with myself. Ok, universe, I get the message.
  • I hung out with Greg and her gf and some other cool folks, and we got to see Sinclair read. It was a brilliant show and a relaxing and fun evening out, marred only by my Cough that Wouldn't Quit. (Sorry, audience at Sinclair's show. The cough drops weren't working any more.) Let me tell you--Greg and her gf are fantastic, even better looking than in the pictures, and it's totally true, they rock like crazy on the karaoke.
  • I thought a lot about my gender identity (big surprise, I'm sure) after a friend suggested strongly I make use of some of the support networks etc. available for trans or gender-deviant folks in our city. She's right of course but hearing her say it was oddly touching and also disorienting. Maybe the cold medicine was making me more emotional than usual.
  • I had lots of fun wasting time with the still-on-vacation Freedomgirl. She even baked cookies today. Yesterday we did errands in the morning and in the afternoon we bonded, in the infamous words of Jess. It was a long, tough fall semester and it's awesome to be feeling so relaxed and reconnected with her. Oh yeah, and a major shoutout to her for getting us organized for my conference and our trip to New York. I'm not the greatest on planning this sort of thing, and she really stepped up to the good-partner plate. Thanks, my love.