Unconscious Identifications

This is part II of “My Quirky Trans Narrative”.

One hears a lot about trans men who “always knew” they were male, and who feel that they have the “wrong body”, or that their bodies “betrayed” them. The concepts of body image, gender identity, and subconscious sex have been utilized to explain such feelings, and different theories are out there as to how and when people’s body image, gender identity, and/or subconscious sex are formed. Personally, I believe that it is through a chain of unconscious identifications made throughout one’s life, beginning at a very young age. (I’m reading Gayle Salamon’s new book, Assuming a Body: Transgender and the Rhetorics of Materiality, right now, which is a fascinating trans-positive and transcentric look at theories of gender identity and sexed embodiment). For a while, I didn’t identify with any of the above experiences, and this led me to feel like I wasn’t trans. Lately, however, I’ve been realizing that even though, for much of my life, I consciously identified as female and as a girl, I also continued to have unconscious and semi-conscious male identifications. For a long time, I denied any contradiction between these unconscious male identifications and my conscious female identification. Now, identifications are complicated and are not the same as identity. Even gender normative cis people can identify, for instance, with characters of the “opposite sex” in movies and television without this in any way disturbing their sex and gender identity. But in my case, I believe that, over time, my repeated unconscious male identifications formed a  pattern, increasingly invested with affect and desire, that has, by now, become consolidated into a highly specific male body image and gender identity — that of an effeminate Asian fag.

My childhood and adolescence are filled with embarrassing gender “mistakes”. Like when I realized it was weird that I, a girl, had a boy alter-ego named Philip. Or when I realized that I had been imagining that I was penetrating someone with my dick every time I masturbated, when I should have been imagining that someone was penetrating me with his dick. Or when, in sixth grade, desperately trying to be cool, I bought a full Z Cavaricci men’s outfit. This would have been unremarkable for many a young trans man, but in fact, this is the period when I was most desperately trying to fit into the “straight girl” mold. I bought this outfit, not because I wanted it, but because I wanted to fit in and be cool, just as I got purses, bras, and a perm. It didn’t occur to me at all that my objective of fitting in would have been better met by buying a women’s Z Cavaricci outfit. At around this same time, a girl at school was harassing me, and I fantasized that we would have a fist-fight, I would beat her up, and everyone in the school would think I was so cool. I didn’t realize that beating someone up was a male, not a female, way of advancing one’s reputation until years later. In each of these examples, my behavior expressed a certain unconscious male socialization or male identification that was in conflict with my conscious identity as a gender-normative girl. In each case, I didn’t realize that I had been fantasizing and behaving in ways that contradicted my gender identity until years after the fact. Each time I had one of these realizations, I would feel stupid and embarrassed, like I kept making mistakes, thinking in ways that girls weren’t supposed to think without even realizing that girls weren’t supposed to think that way.

I was an imaginative kid and an avid reader, and most of the children’s books I read were not feminist. Their main characters were spunky, adventurous boys with whom I identified completely. From them I learned certain boy ethics about bravery, honor, and not crying. I didn’t become aware that these were boy identifications and boy ethics until I thought back on it in college. But by then, I had moved on to reading literary works with adolescent or adult male characters, with whom, again, I identified completely. I remember my surprise and disappointment in college when certain women in my classes would comment on how misogynistic some of my favorite texts (such as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) were, and complain that they found them utterly boring and irrelevant to their experience. I never found male-authored male-centric texts misogynistic or irrelevant to my experience. Rather, I had to be taught, by the women in my classes, how to identify misogyny in literature and how to think about the way that women are portrayed in literary texts. It’s funny to think about it now, but this entire time that I was identifying as female and presenting as a girl, the texts that I was reading as a literature major provided me with a fictive space in which my male identifications could flourish.

My anxiety about whether I was what a girl was “supposed” to be was pushed into my unconscious as I grew older. My last two years of college, I had recurring dreams in which, while going to the bathroom, I would discover that I had a weirdly misshapen penis. I would worry that this wasn’t normal and try to remember whether or not girls were supposed to have penises. Sometimes I would conclude that yes, girls had penises, and be comforted.

I think that part of the reason it took me a while to start identifying as male was that my male identifications were so narrowly specific. I never could look at a regular guy, in real life or on T.V., and feel like we were alike, just as I never thought that butch lesbians and I were alike. However, certain effeminate gay men or representations of effeminate gay men always touched off a powerful chord of identification and aspiration in me. I wanted us to be alike. Exactly alike. Our bodies, our experiences, our mannerisms, our desires. Our clothing, our accessories, our hair. The same. This experience was rare, because of the requirement of effeminacy and the fact that I had a far easier time identifying with Asian men than with any other type of guy. Since, for most of my adult life, I lived in parts of the South where there were few Asians, and there are very few representations of queer Asian men in the U.S. visual culture, I rarely found men with which I identified.

In terms of visual media, I have had intense identifications with the effeminate, cross-dressing, or MTF main characters of three films: Velvet Goldmine (a fictive David Bowie), Farewell my Concubine (a cross-dressing Chinese opera performer), and Beautiful Boxer (a transexual Thai kickboxer). I was blown away when I saw each of these films. I would watch them compulsively, over and over, until I really felt like I was the protagonist before I had to return the DVDs.

In terms of queer celebrities, I have had this experience with Ongina, the fabulous Filipina drag queen featured on RuPaul’s drag race, and Del LaGrace Volcano, the photographer interviewed in Venus Boyz, whose butch appearance combined with hir graceful gestures and gay speech patterns left me open-mouthed in adoration.

It has happened, most powerfully, with some of my real-life male friends. My best friend, a graceful gay man. Ignacio, my fabulous gay Chilean friend. Ray, an effeminate, scrawny East Asian hipster, fond of wearing tiny girls’ t-shirts and jeans. (In honor of this identification, people called me “gay Ray” during this time period). P.J., an effeminate Filipino classmate who used the same Japanese hair product as me. A stylish gay Taiwanese professor at my school. And my lover, a half Puerto Rican half Filipino trans guy I met on the internet who happens to have the same first name as me (!) (Now that I’ve actually met him, the feeling of sameness has gone away, because he’s actually not effeminate at all and has quite a manly build, but over the internet, it was really really strong). In each of these cases, I was literally blown away by the feeling that we were exactly, earth-shatteringly alike… a feeling that I have never experienced with a female, a butch, or a manly man. Each time, I was distressed when I tried to wear their clothes and found that they were too large, or when I saw pictures of us together and realized that we actually did not look exactly alike, that I looked visibly female next to them.

I supposed that butch white trans guys must experience such feelings of identification all the time, with most of the men they meet and most of the guys they see in the media. This is probably one of the signs that tells them, early on, that they are guys, not girls, and prompts them to come out as trans. More profoundly, these repeated identifications probably contribute to building, quite early in life, their male gender identification, body image, and subconscious sex. Since I identify primarily with effeminate men, and with effeminate Asian men in particular, with whom I had very few encounters, I believe that my process of consolidating a male gender identity and body image and coming out as trans has been slower than that of a lot of guys. In addition, for a while, the effeminate character of my male identification made being a smooth-faced boi in an androgynous, slender, but ultimately female body feel more or less right.

However, my effeminacy also contributed to making me feel that I wasn’t trans. For a while, I simply was not very masculine and did not want to dress in a super masculine fashion. Observing that, although many butch women were more masculine than me, they still identified as women and did not want to transition, I thought, “If they can be masculine and female, why can’t I?” What I have realized lately is that there is a difference between masculine identification and male identification. One can be unquestionably masculine and still clearly identify as female, wanting to be seen as a masculine woman or as a butch, but not as a man. One can also be both masculine and male-identified. My big recent revelation is that, rather than identifying with masculinity, I identify with effeminacy. I am thus male-identified without being masculine-identified. Although I spent almost my entire life living as a female, male effeminacy, not female masculinity describes the gender that I identify with and want to express.

For the past five years, I have entertained my effeminate Asian male identifications in private. Although this is how I saw and thought of myself, I didn’t feel like I needed the whole world to see it. To tell the truth, I didn’t even think of this as a real possibility. The shock of my first hookup with my cis male lover, which I credit with setting my transition process in motion, was that it suddenly brought this identification out into the open, and made me realize that I could actually be perceived and eroticized as an effeminate fag. Transitioning, for me, is an almost thrillingly utopic bid to actually live, full-time, as my secret identification. To actually be seen as I see myself. To acknowledge and embrace that it is not female masculinity, but male femininity that I want and need to express and inhabit. In my eyes and in the eyes of the world.

An open question:  What are the types of people and fictional characters that you have identified with the most strongly, and how do you think this has contributed to your gender identity and body image?

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One Response to Unconscious Identifications

  1. Interesting. You sound like you’re basically the reverse image of me, right down to what you were saying about your fantasies while masturbating! I’m MAAB and my conscious mind identifies as a man, but my unconscious mind seems to solidly identify as a woman. In a lot of ways it’s more like being made up of two separate, self-aware subidentities or “part-people” rather than being one person, with me (the male one) having logic, reason, conscious behaviour and the use of language while she has most of emotion along with unconscious behaviour, complex movement and sex. Historically we’ve tended to fight each other quite a lot, although I think both of us have now come to appreciate that life can be a lot more fun if we compromise on things and work together as a team.

    I think my brain is actually physically divided up into separate male and female parts, the result of a hormone exposure incident partway through the second trimester of my mother’s pregnancy with me. I’m of the opinion that a lot of gender identity problems are actually the end result of doctors giving hormone-based medicines to women during pregnancy. These drugs can cross the placenta, and either shut down testosterone production during part of a male pregnancy (as seems to have happened to me), or in some cases, mimic the action of testosterone and cause a period of male development in a female pregnacy (maybe that’s what happened to you!). It’s mainly the brain that’s at risk because it is developing throughout the pregnancy, whereas your reproductive organs and your physical sex are already set in stone by the end of the first trimester. See my blog if you want to know more.

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