My conversation with my butch mentor, who does not want me to transition, followed by my reading of a book she gave me, Among the White Moon Faces, the memoir of Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, a Chinese-Malaysian immigrant to the United States, are leading me to reflect on what I would lose in transitioning. Lim’s memoir not only resonated with me but made me reflect on what it means to narrate the life and development of a person and on what parts of that development become invisible when one transitions. There was an evident continuity between the experiences Lim suffered through as a child and the kind of woman she became, even if this continuity was apparently disrupted by the loss of her relation to her mother, transnational immigration, and exile. In the end, her body mediates between her past and the self she has become. As a professor of Asian American Studies before her mainly U.S.-born students, she seeks to heal the wounds of her past and to bring justice to an educational system that always denied her a voice and a history.
It is much harder for me, as for many trans people, to tell the story of my life. How to narrate the fact that I was a girl who became a boy and who is now becoming something else (a man?) without ever having been a woman or a butch? My narrative is erratic and whimsical. The boy sometimes flickered within the girl I was, but it would be a lie to say that he was my true self and the girl an imposed female socialization. Moreover, if I were to become a man now, I would not be a man like other (cis) men, for I was raised female, not male, and believed myself to be a girl, not a boy (most of the time). And yet, there is continuity in my narrative, for, like for Lim, my experiences as a girl shaped the kind of person I am becoming. Like many girls, I learned to fear (straight) men and to associate femininity with weakness and helplessness. I fought to be taken seriously and fought even harder against what was expected of me as a girl and later, a “woman.” Girlhood taught me feminism, that quick rage against men who assumed authority and dominance not because they merited it, but because they were male; that mischievous will to win within the halls of higher learning against the white men with their resonant professorial voices, collard shirts and khakis who seemed to secrete academia no matter how insipid their ideas; that instant connection with certain brazenly outspoken, brilliant women professors. But did I get this just from being raised female? Reading Shirley Lim’s memoir made me realize that I got my defiance both from being raised female (a horrible experience for anyone) and from living as someone of a completely alien and unrecognizable ethnicity in small-town xenophobic Texas. Brought up by a mother who believed in the immigrant promise of equality and assimilation, I never knew why I was always the weird one, the kid that was always playing alone, that was almost never invited to sleepovers and mall trips and things that other girls did, the one who could never fit in to any clique, the one who, no matter how well I internalized the values of pride and fortitude, never became friends with the popular white boys that composed the high school band’s trumpet line. It is sad now to recognize how much of the formative solitude of my childhood and adolescence was due to a never-voiced racism even more so than from my poor job at being a girl.
It was when I gave up on ever fitting in that I was able to claim my power and my gender. This is why “queer” is such a powerful word for me. It gives angry voice to the cowed fear of that displaced kid who could never be a Texan (I still get reactions of surprise and astonishment when I tell people I grew up in small-town Texas), that meek conformist who would never be accepted, that docile, obedient Asian girl who would never make trouble. It gave me the strength to reject my female role and to ask myself who I wanted to become. It gave me both the scrappy daring mischievousness and the charming smile that have gotten me through academia. More completely than “feminist,” “queer” has been an inspiration and an achievement, one that it has taken me years of retraining to embody, and one which I hope can be a project for life. “Queer” has always been a form of becoming for me that has drawn me away from prior ways of being, never merely the realization of a latent, internal identity. As such, it has not come from within, but been constructed from the inspiration of a community of others. What I was always looking for was queer possibilities.
From my small-town Texas upbringing, I carried with me a deeply internalized fear, the unconscious belief that to be gender variant was to be a freak, an object of universal disgust and opprobrium, unable to move safely through the world, barred from any form of success. It took me a long time to outgrow this internal bar on what I could be. I didn’t believe that it was possible to be gender variant and still respected in academia until I had my first butch professor as a first-year graduate student. A visiting professor from California, she had a low, resonant voice, a wiry runner’s body, and the multiple piercings and tattoo sleeves of a surfer. She wore men’s clothes and had no visible breasts, yet still managed to charm every professor in the English department. I watched in awe as, after one of her talks, she joked familiarly with a particularly distinguished male professor, rested her hand affectionately on the head of a particularly feminine female professor. Nobody drew away from her in disgust, nobody questioned her ability to teach, and, in all her pierced, tattooed glory, she seemed perfectly at home in the halls of academia.
It is funny how one can be so closed to one’s own possibilities that they don’t even occur to one until they appear before one in the guise of another person. This professor made it possible for me to conceive of a gender variant adulthood, to imagine that it was possible for me to be a gender variant person in academia. She shared camaraderie with me, confiding that she shopped in the boy’s department of J.C. Penny, loaning me her copy of a course book, precious shreds of recognition.
Before transition became a real, tangible possibility for me, I found debates over whether or not trans men were abandoning feminism and sisterhood to buy into male privilege ludicrous and tiresome. These debates still make me angry, but increasingly, I am beginning to wonder whether my visceral, embodied, and legible connection to feminism and to women is something that I would regret if I transitioned. Standing before her students, Shirley Lim’s past is visibly redeemed. Unable to find strong women, much less strong Asian women with which to identify as a girl, she is now able to be that figure for young women. Similarly, when my butch professor stood before me, she disproved to me my unconscious beliefs that it was impossible and unlivable to be gender variant in academia and in the world. She showed me new possibilities in what a female person could become.
The inspiration and mentorship of certain particularly brilliant queer and female professors gave me a living connection to feminism and to queer studies. I am now in the position of teaching these courses, a professor myself, and am wondering what kind of an identificatory figure I will present to young students. As a presumed queer female, my visceral link to feminism and women’s studies goes without question, even if it feels odd for my valued speaking subject position to be so misread – I am not butch, not a lesbian, not a woman. But what would it mean to teach Women’s Studies courses as a trans man? What would the classroom dynamics of this pedagogy be? How would I connect with young women in my classes? How would the effects differ if I were visibly female-bodied but going by “he” vs. if I appeared to be a gay cis-male vs. if I were a gender variant “she”? Would young women accept my feminist insights and be able to identify with me?
In a Women’s Studies classroom, the body of the professor does matter. Like it or not, I am presenting myself as an heir of feminism and as someone who would like to pass that feminism down, even in a transformed form, to the “next” generation. I fear the link would be broken if I taught in this context as a male-bodied man. Yet it somehow seems important for students to know that when I talk about women, I am not talking about myself. Presenting as someone who was raised female and who still carried some visible trace of that femaleness with him would teach something, pass on something, I’m not sure what.
At 31, as a queer feminist, I fear that I have lived too long as a female to physically transition. Like it or not, because of my job and my vocation, I represent something to many people who have a stake in what I do to my body. There is my butch mentor, with whom a continuity would be broken were I to transition, my students, to whom I want to model an alternative female life trajectory rather than a disappearance into maleness, the history I have lived to be taken seriously as a gender-variant female-bodied person of unidentifiable ethnicity. It is a huge achievement for someone with my body to be in this position, particularly given the exclusionary history of higher education. And the centrality of mentorship and identification to academic life makes the possibilities of who I might inspire particularly exciting.
The funny thing is, as I enter into this place of “success,” I also have the desire to be free of my femaleness. It is associated, in my mind, with that meek, pitiful Texas girl; with that gawky adolescent afraid of her body, her sexuality, and her gender; as well as with the ridiculousness of a grown-up, mature, dignified professor who still looks like a 15-year old boy (and how much is my desire for male adulthood also a desire for male privilege, beyond the greying adolescence of the female boy?). But to transition fully would make this history invisible, just as it threatens to sever the precious bonds of recognition and mentorship that feminist and butch professors have extended to me over the years. Mine now is the problem of continuity. How do I do justice to important continuities and debts – to my own girlhood, to my vocation as a feminist professor, and to my mentors – as I decide how to proceed within a gender project that increasingly appears selfish?
Since I embraced myself as a Third Gender person rather than trying to feel and look 100% male all the time, my gender dysphoria has eased, and it is no longer torture for me to move through the world as an ambiguously gendered female-bodied person. This means that I no longer have to transition. Unlike many people, I can make a choice. If social restraints were removed, I would choose to be known universally as “he” and to hormonally transition to some degree. This is what seems like the most exciting and compelling future for myself, the one that pulls me. In particular, I feel drawn to the idea of starting testosterone – it feels like a path that I must try, a possibility that will always haunt me if I don’t.
But I exist within a web of recognition, debt, and history, and I fear that transitioning would rend a hole in that web. And here, I am only talking about my academic and political debts, for which I am genuinely grateful. My family is an even more painful question. My link to my family is already tenuous, my current gender ambiguity is already straining it, but it is nice, nevertheless to have some familial link, some sense of the history of one’s kin, some possibility of going back and making amends. I have been trying not to think about family this whole time, but in my moments of the greatest fear I know that transitioning might fatally sever already tenuous bonds which are also bonds to entire cultures, geographies, and peoples. Is it worth it?
For many, there is no choice, but I have a choice to make, and it does not only impact me. I don’t think I can fully transition. I do want to take T. I am ambivalent about being gender ambiguous and engaging in all the drama of asking people to use male pronouns, correcting them when they don’t, venturing into the men’s restroom, working for male recognition. I fear increasingly that, for me, there is no coherence to be found. I am Third Gender, I have a female history, I am a fag, I am a feminist professor, I have a butch mentor who wants me to take the reins, trans lovers who recognize me as trans, the desire for a more male body – these things are impossible to reconcile, no matter the configuration of body, gender, and pronoun I present. If I go by “she,” my identification becomes invisible. If I physically transition, I gain gender coherence, but my history becomes invisible, and important bonds are broken. If I remain at least marginally female-bodied but go by “he,” my history and my identifications (all of them) are almost painfully on display. This painful hypervisibility – not just of the butch, but of the visibly trans person – once seemed unlivable, but now seems like the most accurate and whole way for me to exist. It is incoherent, but so am I. With luck, my family will still want to see me, even if they call me “she” and my birth name forever. I think it is important to present trans bodies as heirs to and teachers of feminism. And hopefully, I will open some kid to possibilities within themselves to which they were closed before.