Suburban to “Subversive”
When I was heavy into queer theory and gender studies, I was into the whole concept of “transsexual as radical sex-changing self-creating mutant gender warrior”, ideas dreamed up by mostly non-trans academics and a handful of trans people, many of them theory-heads and performance artists. I looked at what I was doing as some sort of subversive magick or alchemy. Now, looking back from a more politically and socially mature perspective, what I did seems more like a insecure kid desperate to find some way to distinguish myself in the world by becoming a “gender outlaw” (even though in many ways I was more of one before I transitioned), trying to make myself more interesting than the other white middle-class kids who grew up in the suburbs.
I grew up largely in a rural town going suburban which meant I found myself amongst more and more subdivisions and strip malls replacing forests and farm fields, watching corporate monoculture spreading everywhere it could. I hated the layer of bland plastic that seemed ready to coat everything it could reach. Growing up upper-middle class, I felt pressure to pursue some sort of respectable professional or academic career, which I had no interest in doing. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life but I knew I didn’t like the world spread out before me that I was expected to join. I did not like it at all. I felt like I was living in a cultural wasteland that wanted to assimilate me into it’s blandness.
Though I was pretty odd to begin with, I got into making myself weirder to try to escape what seemed like such a wretchedly boring existence. Since other kids were treating me like a freak anyways I figured why not embrace it and play it up. I followed a lot of the usual routes that kids who want to break out of normality often take: drugs, dressing strange, getting into punk/goth subcultures, making art, consuming certain books, movies and other media, doing weird shit to try to “shock the squares”. I felt lonely a lot of the time but I also became attached to my isolation. I began to define myself as outside of the norm and acted to maintain that position.When I went to college being “subversive” was really in and I found I could invest my oddity with politics. Being a genderweirdo went from something that I got excluded and harassed for to being something that made me cool and interesting.
Like a lot of queer white kids with well-off parents, I was far more willing to see myself as an outsider than as someone with a lot more access to resources than most people in this society. As unpleasant as growing up in the ‘burbs was, my background grants me many advantages in this society. For example, it means that I come from enough money to have access to the type of education that could have gotten me a higher paying job. I know social codes that, if I chose to use, can get some people to take me more seriously, people who often have some social clout. I can do tons of drugs and not worry much about getting locked up. Basically, I can get more and get away with more than many, many other people.
And while I may have shaken my fist at consumerism, I still unconsciously bought into some of it’s “buy your own identity” values. I lot of my “rebellion” was rooted in what I choose to consume. Doesn’t matter if I paid for everything I consumed or not or if what I consumed were physical objects or ideas, I was still basing a lot of my sense of self in what objects I had or used and which ones I rejected. In this society, self-creation is an idea that’s used to sell a lot of products and services including clothes, cosmetics, hair dye, piercings, tattoos, surgery, education, therapy, gym membership, yoga instruction, self-help books and drugs. We’re encouraged to be both self-absorbed and dissatisfied with who and what we are. We’re taught to scrutinize ourselves for ways we can be “improved” because that’s a way to sell more things to people. Not that trying to be a better person isn’t a worthwhile pursuit, but in our capitalist society it often gets mixed up with ads for better skin and prompts to “create your own style” by shopping at certain clothing stores. We’re far less encouraged to be happy with who we are or to create ourselves through means that require no exchange of money, such as self-reflection. We’re sold certain ideas about “individuality” in order to sell more shit in general as well as maintain the overall structure of society. Even while I was trying to resist capitalist culture, some of it still got into my head and informed how I saw myself, including how I saw my gender.
In a sense, I consumed t as a product to enhance my life, to create my own special sex and ease my anxieties about being sufficiently masculine and “subversive”. I felt different but also insecure about my difference being enough. I felt like having an unaltered female body made me “less queer” than someone who’d changed their body. My gender felt too intangible and so taking t was a way to make it more solid and real and try to force people to take it more seriously. I was trying to make a statement with my body, like “Look, I really am this thing I say am because I’m willing to change my body to prove that what I’m feeling exists, I’m not just making it up.”
At the same time I was trying to pass as a man because I felt so insecure about my “masculinity”. I had to convince myself that I was as good as a man by becoming one. I think I had some sense that by taking t, I won’t be gender ambiguous anymore and I think part of me was tired of moving through the world as someone who frequently felt out of place. But I convinced myself that passing as a man was what I wanted and that I’d be “queering” myself by taking hormones. I was going to be a “different sort of man”, a genderqueer man. I feel like some of the theories I’d absorbed about “build your own gender” lead me to believe I could have it both ways, become a man and stay a huge genderfreak.
In someways I think taking t was sort of like being on a drug plus getting an extreme body mod. T didn’t make me high like smoking weed did, though I often got a rush when I gave myself a shot. It changed how my head worked, made me feel “normal” and more confident but now I think a lot of that was a kind of placebo effect created from my wishes and expectations. Primarily it altered my consciousness by bolstering the identities I’d created and begun to use as survival strategies. I was already on my own trip, making up my own reality, t just helped make this reality more solid and something other people could see and respond to.
I got something out of the ritual of injecting myself a few times every month and as well as the whole process of changing my flesh so dramatically. One of my friends pointed out to me that changing my body was a way to have control over something in a world where I didn’t feel like I had a lot of power. I was very unhappy with my life and desperate for a way to change it and infuse it with more meaning. Looking through some of my old journals from right around when I decided to take t, I came a across an entry where I talked about how what I really wanted was the transformation, not the result. I feel like that’s pretty telling.
The transformation came but not as I expected. The changes it brought ended up making what I felt I was more invisible rather than expressing it better. Taking t did not enhance my gender weirdness, it erased it from view. It helped clarify what I felt at least. I didn’t anticipate how different passing a 100% as man would be. At first I enjoyed being seen as a man but the longer I passed the more I realized I wasn’t one.
I noticed a growing gap between how others perceived me and how I saw myself. It started seeming odd and a tad off when other people saw me as a guy all the time. I remember one time, I met some trans dudes and when they found out I was “trans” they complimented me by telling me that they would’ve never guessed. but that didn’t make me feel good. Instead I felt weird and I thought it was interesting that I came off as such a man to them when I wasn’t feeling so manly myself. I just felt more and more disconnected with the maleness/manhood that other people were projecting on me until it moved from feeling “interesting” and peculiar to feeling wrong and really uncomfortable sometimes.
The idea that one can be anything is very appealing but unrealistic is today’s society. Who and what we are is created not only by own perceptions and actions but also by other people’s and as well as by larger social structures and cultural trends. I can act and react to this situation but only so much is open to my direct influence. People are going to look at me, decide what I am and treat me according to how they think the category of people they sort me into ought to be treated.
The whole “create you own gender” mentality I embraced helped blind me to this reality and delude myself into thinking that I could both pass as a masculine man and a “gender rebel” at the same time. I’m not saying that men or people seen as men can’t break gender rules or affect an unconventional gender presentation, but when how I like to present myself is combined with the masculinizing effects of testosterone it yields what appears to be just another dude, not anything out of the ordinary.
I don’t hate how my body is now but I miss my old body and I think I might be happier now if I hadn’t transitioned or at least hadn’t been on t as long. I miss being obviously gender odd, I miss being seen as a dyke. I hate how I’m usually not visible to other dykes, butches and queer women. I don’t want to be seen as a man but that’s what I appear to be to most people.
I feel like I undertook some sort of hormone-fueled “vision quest” similar to white people ripping off indigenous religions in that both are a responding to cultural deadness and a hunger for something meaningful and satisfying but go about it in all the wrong ways. The problem is real, much of mainstream society is ugly exploitative bullshit but these attempted solutions are bullshit too, containing much of what one is trying to reject.
I felt a sense of emptiness inside that I feared was contamination from the bullshit-spewing restrictive culture I was trying to defend myself against. I was looking to fill myself up with something strange and marvelous so I took the concept of being trans and tried to use it to fix my anxieties about being a proper freak and staying outside convention. Didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped or planned.
It did end up making me more radical in some ways. Living as multiple genders, seeing the contrast between how I was treated as a genderweird female compared with how I was treated as a man allowed me to experience just how sexist and patriarchal this society is, how gender groupings act to create unequal classes of people. I’d been exposed to plenty of feminist thought before but I took it far more seriously after living as a man for a while. Working out why I made the decisions I did also taught me how sexism can get inside a person’s head and how theories and ideas can distort and mislead perceptions. I’ve learned a lot about my own capacity for self-hatred, denial and delusion, how much I can be influenced by others and my environment. Thinking about this shit doesn’t exactly cheer me up. I get very upset and angry with myself sometimes but I find such self-knowledge valuable. I want to be aware of my faults.
I feel all sorts of conflicted about my choices. They helped me figure out who I was and taught me a lot and probably helped me survive some rough shit but I also know some of my motivations were stupid and self-destructive and I think taking t was unnecessary. In some ways, I’m happy that I was willing to experiment to find out what I was even if it involved fucking up and doing dumb shit but in others I’m depressed about what I lost and that I acted out of so much self-hatred and insecurity.
Looking back on the world I moved through and the person I was, I don’t think I could have resisted trying t at some point. I couldn’t say no to such an intense experience that touched on so many of my fascinations and psychological needs. How could I stay “just female”, stay my shitty old self when I had the option to become both a whole new man and a whole new species of sex? Being a woman seemed so boring and traditional. Being myself seemed inadequate.
It’s all kind of funny in a sick way. Took t to be a rebel, ended up looking like any old dude. Took it to express myself and ended up making what I was trying to express invisible. My experiment was a failure in many ways but at least I learned from it.