Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Feminism and Me

Am I a feminist?

[Disclaimer: I chose this title deliberately, and I write this with some trepidation. This is not meant to be "Feminism and the Transgender Woman", nor "Feminism and the Older, White Transgender Woman", nor even "Why Feminism (and Feminists) Sometimes Scare Trans Women". This is about me and my experiences with, and perceptions of, feminism. I freely admit that my knowledge and understanding of feminism may be flawed or at the very least incomplete, but my experiences with something people call "feminism" are real. ]

Now that I've transitioned and now that I'm occasionally speaking about what I've observed in the FOSS and Python communities as both male and female, I sometimes get comments or questions involving "feminism". Sometimes I'm be asked if I'm a feminist, but more often what I say is addressed with the assumption that I am a feminist.

I do understand that assumption - a lot of what I'm saying sounds feminist. There is a good reason for that - I'm one of the few who have experienced what being both male and being female in our world is like, and I've seen the differences in reactions from the same people in similar situations. To be blunt, I've seen that sexism, male privilege, and misogyny are very real. 

And I naturally have a real interest in the position of women in our society in particular and in the world in general. As I go about my life now I'm seen as a woman, if I'm lucky - that's certainly my hope and the way I see myself. If I'm not quite so lucky I'm perceived as a man who is trying to be a woman, which is problematic in a bunch of ways no non trans person is likely to ever fully understand. In either case my life is much better if being a woman is not a bad thing. So I definitely share a lot with feminists in terms of what I see as problems and what I see as solutions.

It's complicated

And yet, whenever that word has been cast in my general direction - whether it's during the Q and A following a talk, or in an online discussion, or wherever else - whenever the word "feminism" comes my way, I duck. I do my best to back away and deflect it. I say, "it's complicated."

Why do I back off? What on earth could cause me duck? What makes it "complicated"?

It's a trans thing

A big part of it is the precariousness of a trans woman's situation. No one, or at least very, very few of us, has the strength to fight battles all of the time. No matter how we feel about being trans, life is definitely easier if we're not making a point and not being gender expression warriors every waking moment. I've done my best to be completely open about who I am as I've transitioned. I've gotten the hang of charmingly explaining my situation to doctors, dentists, lawyers, insurance agents, bankers, even car rental clerks, simply because that's easier than insisting on privacy. But coming out all of the time is tiring.

Sometimes it's easier, and many times it's safer, and almost always it's more comfortable to just blend in. But there's the rub.

Many women, even not particularly feminist women, roll their eyes at the efforts trans women make to "fit in" as feminine. They will tell me that they don't worry about hairstyles, that they rarely bother with make up, that they throw on just any old thing to go out, and so on. And of course the implication is that my concern with all of those things - with hair, makeup, clothes, accessories, etc. is a case of trying too hard. I think in most cases they mean well, that they're trying to tell me to relax, that women don't really need to worry about such things to be women. 

This always strikes me as bit of cheat - the salon I frequent seems to be awfully full of women who don't appear to be transgender, the places where I buy accessories seem to pretty well visited by cisgender women, and the cosmetics sellers are clearly not primarily serving the trans community. So it would seem that many, (but not all) women do pay attention to such things, even more than I do. And I would bet that some for some of them it's because they feel they must, for others it's because they want to, and for still others, as for me, it's a combination of the two.

And yet, it is true that women don't have to worry about such things - if one is born a woman, that is. Yes, there is some social pressure to conform to society's expectations, but many women do just fine without worrying about many of them.

But if you happen to be trans (and especially if you have a body and face that has been through many years of testosterone masculinization) the rules are different. If you dress too girly and frilly you're over the top, a parody. On the other hand if you're not overtly feminine enough, if you don't make a pretty darned good attempt to look the part, you must not be "serious" about being a woman and people will fault you for not being "convincing". In some cases, people's access to hormones and other medical treatment (not to mention restrooms) can depend on making the grade in terms of feminine presentation. I actually ran across a voice therapist who made it clear that she would only see me if I was dressed in a properly feminine manner, even if we were having a session via Skype. And of course, "properly feminine" was her call to make, not mine. (I found a different voice therapist.)

In other words, I simply don't have the same range in many areas as natal women - I'm left with a somewhat narrow and fairly conventional range of clothing and behavior if I want to be accepted. Most of the time I'm actually okay with that range - I spent a lifetime wanting to be able to express who I was in a way that society might understand. But like it or not, this exact advice is given to trans women all the time - to carefully observe the cisgender women around you, throw out the extremes, and model yourself on those in middle, blend in with the social norms, do what is expected. Extremes and calling attention to yourself are to be avoided. 

Feminism, on the other hand, has historically been justifiably suspicious of attempts to make all women match that kind of standard. So the trans reality doesn't always mesh with the feminist one. (I'll leave out discussion of "trans feminism" for this post, since it seems mostly to be of interest to and acknowledged by trans women.)

It's a feminist thing

When cisgender women, usually more or less feminist women, tell me that they wear less make up than I do, that they have fewer accessories than I do, that they do less with their hair, that they worry less about body hair, etc. than I do, I do get the message that I'm somehow too obsessed with appearances and not what's really important. In other words, I'm made to feel that I'm not doing it right, that the very way I'm being a woman is letting down the cause, and is invalidating any claim I might have to be a woman. It's a classic double bind - damned if you do, damned if you don't.

And in fact there is a small, vociferous, and agressive segment of radical feminism that takes that point even a bit further. Trans women are, they argue, stooges of the patriarchy, tools used to prop up and reinforce inherently repressive gender constructs. Our very efforts to be female both give support to artificial (and harmful) notions of gender and at the same time violate and mock something innate in natal females. They suggest that we are not women, will never be anything but mutilated men, and are not to be trusted nor allowed in women's spaces. In fact, they would very much prefer it if we were in some way or another just made to go away. 

Maybe it's just me

I won't claim to be well read in feminist theory. Nor will I pretend to have any idea of the true intent of feminism, and I doubt that there is complete agreement among feminists on such a thing. 

But all of this leaves me feeling feminism is a game where I can't win. The way that I feel I need to be a woman seems almost to make me ineligble for that particular club. And in fact some of it's most strident members seem to agree and then some. I do realize that there are many feminists who would strongly disagree with both of those beliefs, but I'm certainly not the only trans woman I know who has felt the same thing.

I've experienced misogyny, sexism, and (straight male cisgender) privilege from both sides. I totally believe in the notion that all people should have the same ability to act, the same safety, the same respect for who and what they are. I also feel the need to share what I've seen in the hope that somehow it helps people understand, that it contributes. 

And yet, when I'm asked in public if I'm a feminist? That's when I have to say, "it's complicated."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Stories and Metaphors

It's funny how sometimes, even in total ignorance, you can manage to get a metaphor for something totally right. This is probably not something to be too proud of, since that one nugget of truth is usually surrounded by many others that are so much less right. In this case I'm talking about metaphors for transition. Right before I publicly started that process I thought of it in terms of leaping off cliffs and of taking flight. And while those images did capture both the terror and exhilaration of that process, in a more fundamental way they fell short of the truth, they were incomplete and inadequate metaphors for the process. 

Why do metaphors matter? I'm convinced that humans are creatures that need metaphors and stories to make sense of life. We need metaphors and stories to shape how we understand the world, how we see ourselves and how we respond.

So the nature of those metaphors matters. If we choose to tell ourselves a story of victimhood and oppression, our view of the world and our futures will be colored  by that view. And if we choose a story of triumph and challenges overcome, that too, will shape our worlds. At least in choosing the image of leaping off the cliff I was acting rather than suffering, choosing my own path in spite of the obvious danger, and that was good.

The Grand Canyon

However, as I think about it now, it's an older metaphor that reflects the experience more accurately. When I was first contemplating transition it seemed like a daunting task. A personality built over decades had to be dismantled, roles and behaviors learned over the years had to be unlearned, and connections forged over a lifetime had to be broken. Only then, I thought, could I start to build the new personality, roles, and behaviors that express who I really was and wanted to be. 

The image I saw was an immense canyon - a deep wide chasm that I wanted to cross. And the only way to get across was first to slowly, painfully, and patiently make the journey to the bottom. Then, I thought, the actual moment of transition would be a tiny hop across a narrow stream, really not much at all. That would be followed, of course, but the long slow climb back out the other side. 

That image resonates with me these days. In fact, I spent years making that descent, so slowly that people didn't realize - my  hair grew longer, I changed my job, my city, and so many other things. Old connections were left behind, often sadly. It was a long trek down, but eventually I did get down to that critical point. And in fact, when I got to that point at the bottom, I was right - it wasn't so much a leap off a cliff as a hop over a tiny stream.

Now, I'm on the climb back up the other side. The climb was exhausting at first. I am creating the woman I need and want to be as I go, deciding how she likes to dress, what things she likes, and who she is. Not all of the old person has gone, but almost everything is up for consideration, almost everything has to be learned, in almost every aspect I feel like I'm a novice, being judged by a more experienced world.

And probably more importantly, I'm considering how that woman will walk through the world. Again, not everything has changed, and probably some things never will. I still can't resist some jokes, and on the flip side, the reserve I got from my taciturn Scandinavian upbringing and a lifetime of concealing who I was will never go entirely away. But there is room for important change. The woman I am becoming is perhaps no kinder and gentler than the man was, but she is definitely more free to express and even celebrate kindness and gentleness. Free from the man's implicit self-loathing she is more able to embrace the good times and to cherish her friends.

And that has lead to a joyous surprise. On the way down I thought that most connections were truly broken, that each person I had left behind was gone for good. I am now learning to my joy that I was wrong - the way up has increasingly been populated by old friends, each one of them as invigorating as a cool drink. And each one of those old friends I meet along the way, each one who manages to see the new me, remember the old me, and then pull the two together, makes the journey that much easer. 

It's hard to be whole without a past, and it turns out that this has been one the key lessons of the climb back up out of the canyon - not only must a new personality be forged from the shards of the old, for it to be truly whole it must embrace all of the old one's past, the pleasant and the painful, the sadness and the joy. 

This was the part that I didn't understand when I first contemplated the process years ago. I saw the journey to the bottom, I saw the trek back up. I even guessed at the insignificance of the stream. But I didn't understand the true work of the climb back up, and I didn't see all of the friends who would be there to make the journey such a pleasure. 

All of which is really a riff on my earlier post. There I said that I would be unlikely to reach out to old friends because I didn't know if they would want to see me. To put it another way, I was afraid of being rejected. I've now come to see that staying away from old friends out of the fear they might not accept me is not the way to continue my climb.

Many old friends have found me and reached out first, and I treasure them. But I have also started making the contacts on my own, and that is just as important. Offering myself, the real me this time, to old friends and acquaintances is a sign that I value who I am, something that wasn't so true before. It's a move forward in hope and trust, which are hugely important to the woman I am.

What this means is that I'm going to hesitate less and worry less about getting in touch with people. Of course I'll still treasure those who find me. But if it strikes me, if I am reminded of or some how run across someone I used to know, I probably won't let fear of rejection stop me from reconnecting. And I think that's a good thing.

Farewell and Welcome Home

It's time for a change

I've come to think it's probably time to change the name of this blog. The original title was meant to be a bit droll, a pop culture reference, with a comic soap opera feel to it. It seemed right as I started into transition, echoing the questions I knew so many people would have.

But at some point, that drollness wears thin, and at some point the focus changes. One hopes there less place for questions, and less need for soap opera angst.

A new name

So I've been thinking of changing the name to a phrase that has echoed in my head since I first heard it. It came from an old friend wishing me luck and congratulating me on the eve of my transition. He said, "farewell and welcome home." 

It captures in four words what's struck me most about this whole experience, the need for loss in order to gain myself, the need to leave home in order to find a truer home.

It struck me as almost premature back then - then there was just a hope that I would be home, not a certainty. Now, months later, no matter how far it seems I still have to go, it's increasingly certain. Yes, finally I am home. 

So thank you, Mr. Park. "Farewell and welcome home" it is.