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Transplant

Friday, June 10th, 2011 by

I crossdress. Sort of. Certainly I go out sometimes in a compression tank top, with an ace bandage binding my chest, under a men’s shirt and jeans and without earrings or makeup. I’m not trying to pass as a cis man or anything, but given that I’ve been mistaken for one while wearing women’s clothes and a bra, I expect that I sometimes do. I refer to this as “drag,” because it’s presenting as something contrary to my gender assignment, but it honestly doesn’t feel any more like an act than going out in a sexy skirt and top does. I don’t choose one of those options because I’m feeling “more girly” or “more boyish” that day. These are just some of the outfits I have in my wardrobe, and sometimes I’m in the mood for one, and sometimes another.

In sexual dreams and fantasies, It’s about 50/50 whether I have a penis. When I do, the other person in my imagination often doesn’t; when I don’t, the other person usually does. More often than either, I’m observing from outside and honestly couldn’t tell you which participant’s place I’d like to be in. I view porn that way too. (Am I agazing? Maybe gazecurious.) There are sex acts I find equally hot from either participant’s perspective, although some are frustratingly inaccessible to me; I’ve never longed for a bio cock more than while watching someone give exquisite head to my strapon.

So What?

None of that is inherently about gender, of course. It’s about presentation, body type, and sexual preferences. There’s nothing wrong with identifying female and presenting male, nor with identifying female and having a penis, but I don’t know that either of those is what I’m doing. Do I have a reason beyond chromosomes to think of myself as female? I’m not a trans man–I’m pretty sure of that–but there are other labels I could use: gender fluid, intergender, third gender, and more. The reality, though, is that none of these descriptions feels quite right to me. Including female.

It’s not that I reject the notion of labels outright. I’m a language nerd; I fully appreciate the utility of having words for things. But there are places I reach for in my own brain when I want to know my name, my preferences, my personality, or other parts of myself, and when I reach into the place where it feels like gender should be, I come up empty. I’m not even sure what having something there would mean. There are people out there who know their own gender so certainly that they make huge, difficult life changes to be perceived as what they are. I sincerely respect that, and intellectually I can understand it, but I don’t really comprehend the strength of that pull towards a point on the gender spectrum. What part of me would be different, if I knew I was male?

For a long time I dodged the question. “I’m female,” I would explain if someone asked, “but I’m not particularly attached to it.” Then, talking with a small group of friends a few weeks ago, I explained in more detail and wondered if I should call myself something else. Someone asked why I even cared what word I used, if I didn’t feel strongly about my gender. I gave the answer I thought of first: I want to communicate well, which means adopting the label that expresses my intent most clearly. But before I was done saying it, I knew it was a true reason but not the real one. I turned my mind from exploring vocabulary to answering my friend’s question. Why did I care so much about the label? Why did the topic agitate me so much?

And the realization came like a wrecking ball. Having a gender isn’t about aligning yourself with a definition; it’s caring about your label. All this time I’d been saying I wasn’t attached to my gender, I was attached so strongly that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I cared so much that whenever it came up, I had to point out I didn’t care. I couldn’t let go of the question because I knew, deep down, that the label I’d been using was wrong for me. The hole I found when I reached for that part of my identity wasn’t an absence. The hole was the answer. In retrospect, the obviousness and ridiculousness of this made me laugh. And then I started to cry.

In the few months that I’ve been actively exploring kink, I’ve spent a lot of time in the uncomfortable situation of not knowing things. There’s a skill to being new–to accepting a period of inability and frustration, and persisting–which I’ve worked consciously to develop. I’m not afraid of talking to a stranger about my sexual desires. I’m not afraid of watching someone stick needles through my arm. But this? The gender thing? This terrifies me. I can stay calm while examining my core beliefs, needs, and expectations, because even the most important of those are just branches on the tree of me. I had thought gender was just another branch; it turned out that I was shaking the tree by its roots. Finding the right word wasn’t about explaining some things that I do. It was about knowing what I am. I had no precedent for changing my self-perception on that fundamental a level. I was really, honestly frightened.

In Good Company

But I wasn’t alone. One friend of mine told me recently about his similar feelings: Our culture models gender as a line, he explained, with male at one end and female as the other. When he wants to move away from male, people perceive him as moving towards female, but that’s not what he means to do at all. What he wants is to move orthogonally to the line itself. Another friend, Ian, wrote in a Fetlife post about his identity:

I am male. Sort of. Kinda. Mostly? While I am certainly male-bodied and identify most clearly as being male [...] the act of dressing up isn’t arousing, but rather comforting. Sometimes I just feel more girly than others, and I have at this point built a number of feminine aspects into how I present myself [...] I am not transsexual then, simply genderqueer, though not so strongly that I feel comfortable making it my main gender identity … yet.

Then there’s Storm, the baby who’s being raised without gender. Storm’s parents were inspired by Lois Gould’s lovely fable The Story of X. Kathy Witterick pleads on her child’s behalf:

Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s(he) wants to be?!

A Swedish toddler whom the press call “Pop” hasn’t been assigned a gender either. Pop’s parents’ reasoning:

We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset. It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.

Hanne Blank’s fantastic keynote at BECAUSE 2002 exhorts us to not settle for static labels. The talk is about bisexuality, but her language here is broad:

What I am here to do is to ask you to consider this: that having an identity which is constantly the subject of negotiation is a good thing, that not resting, not having a fixed dwelling place, keeps our queerness — and all queerness — vital and alive. I am here to ask you to consider that the cultural consolidation of identity limits one’s ability to become liberated from a culture whose practice is to only recognize consolidated, group identities. Consider for a moment that there are ways to establish identity and community without sacrificing mobility, flexibility, change, and challenge.

Transplant

All this time, I’ve been afraid of jerking people around–asking of them the difficult task of changing their definition of me, and then having to do it all over again later because it didn’t turn out to be the right label after all. But maybe it’s not about being “right.” Maybe it’s about describing the place where I am now, about being a visible example of the complexity of gender experience. I resisted the idea of finding or making a different word for myself because I didn’t want to be seen as sophomoric, rejecting all previous thought on the subject so I could declare myself a unique snowflake. But I do get to choose what I am, and I am unique. So is everybody else! What if we started acknowledging that?

Blank suggests the word “sovereign” to describe a dynamic and self-directed identity. While that may be the true nature of the thing, it doesn’t satisfy my desire for clarity. The etymological best fit for me is, I think, “agender.” While it falls under the umbrella of genderqueer, it doesn’t mean between genders, nor alternating; it’s not a third gender or a mix. It just means “not”–a hole–a gap in self-concept at the place where I found one in mine. It’s not a fixed point for me to align to, it’s a description of what I already am. And that, for once, feels right.

I can tell it’s a good label because it changes almost nothing. I’ll keep wearing men’s and women’s clothes, often together, and daydreaming about bits I do and don’t have. On forms with only two choices, I’ll shrug and check “female,” or abstain. Where gender is a text field, I will reward that with a more thoughtful answer. And on my own blog, where I can answer in paragraphs if I want to, I have no need to compromise. My introduction currently describes me as “female. Mostly,” and it’s wrong. I’m not mostly female; I’m a feminine sort of agender. When I publish this post, I’ll update that text to say so.

I’m nervous about changing my label, and nervous about sharing so much. But if I feel exposed–uprooted–that’s just the move out of my planter box. Outside, I’ll have richer soil … and a lot more room to grow.

 

There’s now a followup to this, Post-Transplant, describing my first six weeks with a new gender label.

24 Responses to “Transplant”

  1. maymay says:

    This post greatly reminds me of a fundamental truth I’m often berated for repeating: our lives are meaningless, which we ought take to mean not that we are meaningless, but that in looking at the lack of meaning itself—the hole where we are told the “meaning” or “purpose” of our lives “should” be—offers us the opportunity to replace it with whatever we wish. This is an opportunity we would not have had our lives already had meaning, perhaps stamped on our forehead.

    So, too, seems to me to be what you’re saying with regards to being “agendered.” It was only once I had rejected “man,” and then subsequently rejected “woman,” that I came up with my own interpolation of “the kind of man I want to be.”

    As an aside, this could be a pretty neat thing to add to the sex-positive resources wiki.

    • fizz says:

      If it’s a wiki, why are you telling me that? ;)

      • maymay says:

        If it’s a wiki, why are you telling me that? ;)

        Well, Fizz, Because you clearly know this experience better than I do, and I am WAY TOO BUSY to handle yet another documentarian project right now. Also, you have good experience with documenting things.

        If you don’t do it, I’ll eventually loop back to this and do it myself. My comment with a link to the wiki was as much for my own benefit, if not more so, than it was for yours. ;)

        • fizz says:

          Ah–I hadn’t looked closely enough to see that you were suggesting writing a whole article about agender. That’s more than I’m willing to bite off, too, right now. Remind me when I’ve been out for more than about eleven hours.

  2. *sigh* I will say the things I’m about to say, and y’all will probably assume that I’m on the “other side” of this debate. Which is frustrating, and sad, because I’m really in agreement that gender is an arbitrary thing that we all really get to define for ourselves.

    But…

    You said

    The reality, though, is that none of these descriptions feels quite right to me. Including female.

    This linguistic tossing in of “male” and “female” into the arbitrary gender stew is very troubling to me. Because it is (or at least SHOULD be, in our collective minds) NOT arbitrary but directly related to your specific body morpohology. And acting like people with penises and people with vaginas are interchangeable seems like a REAL bad idea to me, in terms of health and sexuality education.

    Yes, having a penis or having a vagina or having whatever factory-installed equipment you have does not need to define whether you are a “man” or a “woman” or whatever other flavor of gender you identify with. But it fucking well DOES matter when you’re dealing with issues of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction, and a bunch of other things. And I am seriously doubtful that it helps to act & talk as if THIS part of the equation is changeable from day to day.

    • fizz says:

      We’ve miscommunicated, and the source of it is that there are two meanings of “female.” It’s used both for gender (self-identification, what I meant) and for sex (physical characteristics, what you seem to mean). To avoid this, a lot of people use “female-assigned” for the latter (as opposed to “female-identifying” or just “female” for the former). You’re absolutely correct that my physical characteristics are what they are–I’m female-assigned, my body is typical of one with two X chromosomes, and I have absolutely no issues or qualms about that. In the sense that you’re using the word, yes, I’m unambiguously female. But that’s not how I use the word, and that usage is unrelated to the topic of this post.

  3. india says:

    i just want to say thank you thank you thank you
    i’m sixteen and i’ve been struggling with my gender identity for years because everything was just not quite right and i’d been going under “genderqueer” because it was the easiest way of saying ‘i’m not quite like you’ and this really hit right on a lot of things for me and whoops this is a terrible sentence but the point is thank you

  4. LogicalDash says:

    And the realization came like a wrecking ball. Having a gender isn’t about aligning yourself with a definition; it’s caring about your label.

    Does this mean that all people who genuinely do not care about their gender or lack thereof are agender?

    • Fizz says:

      I’m not sure I would trust any non-tautological statement of the form “all people who [something] are [gender]” (or vice versa). It might actually be the case that all gender is, is caring about the label; it may also be the case that there is some real thing there for other people, and conflating it with the label is just how I can get myself to understand it. I honestly wouldn’t know. :)

      On the one hand, it seems like there would be people who have a gender but don’t really care about it. On the other hand, if someone really completely didn’t care about it, it seems like they wouldn’t care about being misgendered, or conforming to gender roles, or presenting … and at that point, is it meaningful to say they have a gender?

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  7. deena larsen says:

    Female assigned seems like a good way to put it.

    I am interested now as my wife had been a GLBTQ advocate and introduced me to these issues (I knew I was “gay” the minute I saw my wife and knew I loved her…before that, I’d never really cared much.)

    I never really thought about it much one way or the other–my body is my body, and I have other physical issues (such as a rare disease where I am always in pain.) But I wear long skirts because I can since I am female assigned and it is easier to hide the scars on my legs and they feel nicer on my skin than pants. I wear long hair because I can as a female assigned and if I don’t feel like combing it that day, I can braid it. I do not wear make up, and someone I trust tells me what goes with what. I can no more tell the best dressed from the worst dressed than I can the difference between a haggis and a brain-dish— and really don’t care that much.

    I had a husband, and that was just fine. I had a wife, and that was wonderful–but only because we connected on a soul level. Other than that, sex has never really interested me all that much.

    I’ve never minded being called female. I don’t think I would have minded being male, except with my physical limitations, sports would have been a challenge.

    I guess the only thing I get bothered by is the notion that I should care or should see my assigned gender as part of my personality. Or that I should look at the gender of the other person I am with, rather than their soul or their personality. So, in that sense, I guess I do have a “gender issue” problem…. Maybe I should just stop caring what society wants or says and not bother about this?

    • Fizz says:

      Maybe. The way I see it, if you’ve got words for yourself that you’re comfortable with and are being treated the way you want to be treated, it doesn’t sound like any kind of problem to me. :)

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  9. L. Beck says:

    I read the first sentence of the third paragraph, and thought “Wow, *I* could have written this.” I didn’t stop thinking that the whole way through. It’s like you’re describing my life, every thought I’ve ever had about my gender.
    I especially like when you say “[The label is] not a fixed point for me to align to, it’s a description of what I already am. And that, for once, feels right. I can tell it’s a good label because it changes almost nothing.” The temptation (both with sexual orientation and gender identity, two things I have explored extensively) is often to pick a simple label, and change your behavior to fit it.
    Your article succeeded on two counts: it was superbly written, and it was extraordinarily relatable. I cannot tell you how powerful it was to me.
    Thank you.

    • Fizz says:

      Thanks so much for saying so! For all the same reasons it’s powerful for you to read about me having that experience, it means a ton to hear people come back and tell me they’ve felt the same way. I’m really glad this resonated with you, and appreciate that you took the time to tell me it did.

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  11. Tor says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve been questioning my own gender identity lately, searching up some different genders and how to know what gender one is, and that’s how I found this post and it is really helpful. I feel pretty similar some of the time, and this helped me figure that out! Thank you :) and although this post is like three years old i’m glad you were able to find how to express your gender!!

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