Reclaiming Female/Speaking Back
Cut off from myself, wrenched apart, scattered into pieces, I mistook my wounds for what I was. Encouraged to live inside illusions, I gave my life to them to keep them alive and take what protection they offered.
I am a dyke coming back together after being severed and scattered, after learning to fear my own body and see it wretched and not enough, a place under constant threat I had to escape or change to survive in.
I couldn’t call myself a woman because woman meant nothing I was or wanted to be. It meant the girls wearing make-up and clothes that felt like drag on me, talking and acting in ways strange to me, incomprehensible creatures who were sometimes cruel, asking me if I had a dick, throwing up their repulsion as another barrier between us. It meant the women I found on the screen and the page who I could not see myself in, the descriptions of female life that left me out, didn’t even consider my existence a possibility. It meant I was disgusting, not right, not enough of a boy or a girl to belong to either group, left out, on my own, living in my head and talking to myself for lack of actual friends, being one of the school scapegoats, never able to rise above my position no matter how hard I tried, as a girl I was not what others respected or wanted to be close to. It meant being alone and open to attack. It meant threats to my safety, being seen as a target for being female and then for being one that didn’t look or act right, being yelled at by strangers, listening to a boy at school joke about raping me, knowing I should never, ever be caught alone with certain boys or they just might. It meant my mother, watching her unhappy, unfulfilled, anxious, growing more depressed as I grew older, watching her try out different therapists, art therapy, self-help books, trying every psych drug from benzos to amphetamines and never finding relief, coming home to her suicide note and a message on the answering machine saying she’d been found on a bridge and taken to a hospital and never talking about it after she got out a month later, pretending everything was better until she wasn’t again and fell even farther, too far, put on antipsychotics and pacing, pacing all the time, only expression on her face pain and totally lost, soulless, a walking corpse in agony terrible to behold, until one day stiff and dead and hanging in the closet, she couldn’t see any other way.
I didn’t see any way I could be a woman. I saw how different others treated me when they thought I was a boy, when they were unable to see me as female because they never learned a face, body, posture, voice like mine could belong to a woman. As a boy I fit inside their world, even as a trans boy I usually made more sense, caused less confusion than as a girl. If I was a trans boy we could all agree something was wrong, my body was wrong, I had the wrong traits and character for my body but that could be fixed and then order would be restored.
I wrote a story for myself that wove together what I felt and what seemed the clearest course of survival. I could not see myself as a woman and I could not ignore the safety and respect I got when I was seen as male, trans or otherwise. I knew I was not a man, knew it even more after I started t and got accepted into male society without question and heard what they say amongst themselves, but I tried to convince myself otherwise because being seen as one, living as one gave me so much. To look like any other white guy, even dressed up all punk, meant being able to just walk through the world and be acknowledged as a person worthy of basic respect, not having to be afraid of being yelled at or fucked with, not treated like a freak, I never had that ease until I took testosterone and started passing consistently. So I made myself into an exceptional man, said I was like them and unlike them at the same time. A genderqueer creature, mixture of different genders that shifted and flowed into each other. I was a man born with a cunt and raised in a female body, I never had any illusions that my body and past didn’t matter though I couldn’t take in their whole significance.
I was fragmented, with different parts of me crying out for expression and I tried to fit them into a whole. There was the part that felt like a man and wanted to get treated like one and enjoyed how well she passed, enjoyed it even more when people knew she was female, saw direct evidence of her female body and still said what a dude she was. The part that still felt like a butch dyke but couldn’t see butch as really female or was afraid to, still not ready to go into that fear, a part that offered up doubts that were forgotten but raised again and again over the years. The part that felt like a genderfreak because she’d been treated like an oddity, misfit, not belonging among women or men, that embraced this, felt it gave her a unique position though a painful one, that felt invisible when she passed for male and so sought out queer spaces where her outsider status would be recognized and celebrated. This one had more truth in her than the one who felt male and gradually gained prominence, my view of myself shifting more towards genderfreak from trans male over time, until I was ready to look at my femaleness directly. She was an articulation of the trauma of not having a place amongst other people, being cast out, and the passing male persona was her shield for moving through this world unharmed. There was also the part that felt like she had no gender inside of her, felt like gender was projected onto her like an illusion, a product of society she had taken into herself and would not know of otherwise. She was also closer to the truth and she too came more into focus over time. These parts would speak at different times alone or clamor together at once, arguing, trying to come to agreement or cancel each other out and I tried to sort them all out into one space I could inhabit and feel secure in.
I decided I must be movement, for any stillness of self was transitory and shifted position eventually. I saw I had a range of places I went, places I went back and forth from or sometimes occupied simultaneously, feeling more like a man or a genderfreak or both a dude and dyke at the same time or as no gender at all. This was very unsettling to me at first. I wanted more stability, one place to live, not many to wander back and forth from. But since this was what I found when I examined myself, year after year, I decided this just must be what I am and I must accept this.
Now I see my uneasiness with this state as knowing on some level that I wasn’t well, that I was trying to live broken apart, shattered. When I finally was able to start putting the pieces together into a whole, which was only possible after I accepted myself as a woman, the state I’d lived in and accepted as a kind of gender fluidity or complexity began to horrify me when I recalled it. I could connect what I had felt back to violence done to me by people and this culture that had literally ripped me apart into pieces and then set some of those pieces into conflict with the others. The story I told about it seemed like making the best of a profound severance and disconnection between my selves, a way of making sense of things when I wasn’t ready to face knowledge of how I’d been hurt.
Coming to see my sense of self as a product of how I’d been wounded took time. The parts that knew were stubborn and won’t shut up and eventually I started to listen. First there was letting myself give up on being a man, starting to feel more and more invisible when I was seen as one, getting called “he” stopped feeling right. Stopped taking testosterone because it made my head feel wrong and I told myself I’d gotten the changes I’d wanted from it and now it was making me look too much like a man anyways, which I knew I wasn’t now, and if I stopped I’d look more ambiguous like I felt. Still not ready to be a woman but getting more comfortable with seeing myself as a dyke, which I still put on the borderland of female heading out of it. Could’ve maybe stopped there, just told myself I was a genderqueer who needed to take t temporarily, not for life, live in an “in-between” body. But something pulled me on, kept me going.
I started sleeping with a woman, someone I’d been friends with for years, my first serious relationship in a long time. We got together while I was still living as a genderqueer/man but sometimes when we had sex I felt like we were two women, and I felt aroused by how our bodies were the same. And I found that I worried that what we did together wasn’t real because neither of us had a dick, that we weren’t really having sex. Most of her previous partners had been male and I found that part of the satisfaction I got from pleasuring her was that it gave me proof that I was as sexually potent as a man. Taking all these feelings together and examining them, I saw I had taken in the idea that sex between two female bodies wasn’t real, was weak and not as good as het sex and that I was uncomfortable when I felt like a woman having sex with another woman but also desired it. I was shocked. I’d been having relationships with women since my teens and had been part of a radical queer scene that trumpeted “sex positivity” for most of my adult life and yet I found deep inside that I hated and had contempt for myself for being a lesbian.
I had been too proud and swept up in radical queer rhetoric to consider that I could have anything so “old-fashioned” as internalized homophobia. I had come out in a time when there were gay groups for high school kids, one of them even met at my Unitarian church. Overall, my family was accepting of me when I came out or that’s how I recalled it, now I see more ambivalence on their part. I had access to tons of books and movies, magazines and websites. I thought I had it pretty easy compared to what older generations had gone through. And yet, nearly every kid who attended that youth group at my church had been locked up in a psych ward at some point, myself included. I couldn’t take it when my history teacher told me I couldn’t write a paper on the Stonewall riots because they weren’t history. On top of all the shit I got, being told I had no history was too much. Thought about taking too many pills, told my parents instead and they sent me to the psych ward. And while I was in there, I met more lesbians, most of them butch like me, than I did at my youth group. And it was totally normal amongst the gay kids I knew that we felt like killing ourselves at some time or another or maybe all the time. I told people how much I’d been hurting and they locked me up and drugged me. They hurt me even more. All the gay kids I knew also going crazy and wanting to die and the doctors giving us pills and therapy, making money off our suffering; transitioning some of us is just an extension of that. Now they pathologize homosexuality less directly, go after us for how living in a hostile world affects us.
And though I suffered along with them, I was on the fringe of many of the gay groups I hung out in, found out there were rumors amongst them that my body wasn’t really female, that I had tits and a dick. They would get confused by me just like the straight kids did, would wonder whether I was a boy or girl. Presumed I was trans a lot of the time, again sending me the message that I wasn’t really female, made more sense as something else. In nearly every group I moved through I felt out of place.
How much of my radical queer posturing was just covering up my vulnerabilities and making a lot of noise to distract myself from the pain I was feeling? Trying to make myself look tough, making up for being at the bottom for so long and feeling like shit. I was angry and could rail against the world but I wasn’t ready to look at all the reasons I felt that way.
With my lover I started being able to see and experience my body in new ways. I started to come back inside my flesh and take hold of her as female, accepting that that is what my body is and that is enough. My submerged female consciousness was ready to move and surface and she started bubbling up all over, during sex, meditation, when I entered ritual space. She had found her opening out to the world and she took it, slowly pouring out of me, gradually infusing me more and more. First getting me comfortable with giving more space to being a dyke without giving up seeing myself as genderqueer or even still a boy sometimes but slowly pushing me onwards, calling me to attention, making me look where I was afraid to before.
I found that I was terrified of being a woman and so I explored that fear, made myself walk through that haunted land though it made my skin crawl and I shuddered with every step. The terrain of woman was female, was a body I had trouble living in completely and feeling all the parts present with the names and meanings they’d inherited, that I thought I had to remake to inhabit. I thought the soil was dead to the life I wanted to grow from it and I needed to infuse it with chemicals to sprout what I desired. My desires, my images of what I wanted were more real and more me than the body itself, my mind trying to forget the whole organism. But eventually there was the woman, presumed dead, surrounding me, daring me to look and transverse her and find out what she was. Was she me?
So I walked into her and I found what repulsed me, I found what had been sunk into her, into me, what others had tried to build into us in order to exploit, extract, redesign us and I found that my own experiments in chemical transformation, in renaming my body “male” or “genderfreak” had not touched this first evidence of invasion. I found a wounded landscape, devastation and I saw I had taken up the destruction where others had left off. Not that they ever really stopped but I could mark the time when I began to imitate them, carve into myself what they had carved into me first. I found what horrified me was what had been done to me and what I’d done to myself. Saw what had been done to my female body to try to make me over into an ensnared woman, that made womanhood into a threat, something I thought I had to avoid to be free.
And I found the land surviving underneath and she was alive and full of living creatures extending out into each other, forming a web. She shook in pain and rage but she lived. And she was space extending into infinity and no matter how far I walked or how hard I looked I could not see the end of her. Woman going on forever, endless textures, sights, sounds, smell, words, thoughts and feelings, what could be named and what was beyond naming. And what had been built on her, on me to contain, to force into ornamentation or labor began to seem so much less significant, to become absurd and laughable, transient and doomed to decay back into the land. As nourishment. What was pain becomes food, fuel to grow and fight. The men in power will never learn that so often when they seek to control us they create their own Nemesis. It just takes time before she comes out of hiding. And it turns out she’d been stalking her enemies this entire time spent in their territory because she came back with a wealth of intelligence on the society set up to destroy her.
My sense of being a man and other genders were like shelters I built from scraps I’d harvested or stolen from the structures built upon me by this society and its enforcers. They housed me but also confined me. I was afraid of going too far away from them, so they limited my ability to wander. They required frequent repair and so tied me to the society I sought to escape, since I returned to it again and again for supplies. And these materials were toxic, silently exuding substances I could not detect but which poisoned me all the same. If I compared what I had built to the cities I’d stolen the materials from, I was satisfied, my creations seemed preferable and separate enough. When I saw beyond them to the endless living land, I saw how much they resembled what I’d been trying to overcome. I had built in my own style but I had still built according to an earlier education I was trying to forget. Instead I’d just forgotten how it had affected me and its lessons played inside my head, shaping my movements and creations. Actually unlearning meant seeing the land directly without words coming between us which then changed what words could mean when they returned.
This lead to a transformation of language that generated power and released energy that had been bound up in stale symbols, which turned these symbols from confining to life-giving. Woman, for example, gained new dimensions. I could see not only how it had been used to summon up a host of roles, rules and punishments designed to bring women into line with the desires of men but also how it pointed to a people struggling to exist on our own terms and claim our full potential, who refused to accept that having a cunt was a limitation rather than a unique and powerful existence. Woman becomes a sign of prideful defiance, of joy in creating our own reality despite the obstacles put in our path. It became something I could sense clearly but can never contain in words and so the possible descriptions are endless. Woman becomes the way through to find infinite power and women become those who actively or potentially seek such power as well.
Calling myself a woman became a way of taking on the history of womankind, the long horrifying legacy we’ve all inherited of exploited labor, rape, forced pregnancy or sterilization, prostitution, incest, of being denied education and meaningful work, beatings, burnings, confinement in mental institutions, of strife between women, betrayals by women wielding class power and racism, betrayal of mother by daughter and vice versa, women turning from each other in times of need, abusing each other to get some taste of power, of the culture, media and religion reflecting and justifying this reality, the whole weight of several thousand years of global patriarchy, taking it on and holding it without being crushed. Becoming strong enough to admit that I am a woman and this connects me to all other women alive and dead. And knowing this connection, deeply, in my very flesh is the beginning of going beyond it. Recognizing the connections does not only connect me to suffering and degradation but also to the long history of women fighting back. I find the women who came before and their creations and their power is still alive and it lights me up. So I can learn about the violence and idiocy that’s long ruled the world and I can face the forms of it that exist currently because I have proof of what other women did. I learned that I also inherited the spoils they won, I learn what I have because of how hard they fought and I know it’s my turn to keep it going. There’s still so much work to do.
Along side me, helping me face what terrified me and discover all these connections beyond that, helping me remember what happened to me and understand how I got here, helping me get in touch with power inside me and find radical lesbian and women-centered culture were other women who had the same struggle. Women who’d also been cut off from their bodies and selves, treated like freaks, broken apart by the world around us, who transitioned and lived as men or other genders and then came back to their womanhood and were trying to make sense of what had happened to them.
First I found one other woman like me, Devorah, met her online. We started writing one another, later called each other on the phone. Found out quickly we could say things to each other we couldn’t say to people in the queer scene because it was too taboo, against the rules, supposedly “transphobic”. We became emboldened, felt less crazy with another who shared our observations, who saw misogyny poking out everywhere from behind the facade of supposedly radical queer culture. We helped each other go where each of us was afraid to go alone. Had no idea where we’d end up, getting more and more heretical as time went by, finding strength and sense reading the work of radical women we’d been taught were worthless and irrelevant at best, hateful bigots at worst. Came to see that the “feminism” and queer theory we’d been taught was just the latest backlash, patriarchy pushing back with co-optation this time. Both of us started blogging about our experiences and through that met more women who’d transitioned and stopped. The more women we talked to the more patterns we started to see, trauma, dissociation, getting treated like shit because our bodies and behaviors weren’t “female enough”, tendency towards self-destruction, most of us lesbian or bisexual, often butch. It became more clear that what we had suspected was true, this was a social problem masquerading as individual malady, women like us were being erased. We understood from our own pasts how self-annihilation could be clothed in the trappings of self-discovery and creation, knew it was more complicated than people just doing what felt right to them. We knew that our feelings and self-knowledge also grow from a culture determined to destroy us and this must be reckoned with deliberately, grieved from our core outwards if we want to find freedom, find out what we can be.
I finally met Devorah at Michfest, presented a workshop with her and four other women about our experiences transitioning and then reclaiming our female realities, how this happened, what we thought this meant, how it was a result of living in a woman-hating and lesbian-hating culture. The women who came to listen giving us their full attention, their concern and love, “hearing us into speech”, helping anxiety fall away and easing out the difficult truths we carried with us. Never experienced anything like it before, being seen and respected for our strength and for being honest about how we’d been hurt, not pitied, held, given space to exist as we are.
At Michfest I found the radical lesbian feminist culture I’d been obsessively reading about manifesting all around me, becoming a physical, living, changing reality I could interact with. I could talk to the women who’d helped build it, hear their stories and find out that they wanted to hear mine too. I realized that what I’d been told about these women, that they didn’t matter, were foolishly set in outdated ways, that it’d be great when they all finally died out, hateful, narrow, naive, bigoted, all this had cut me off and barred me from a culture built by women like me, that centered women like me. To meet these women and find out how glad they were to see me and hear them say that I and my friends were the women they’d been fighting for and they’d waited all these years for us to show up brought me alive in ways I’d never known before. Not being able to accept or even see myself as a lesbian was one kind of wound, being cut off from other dykes, especially from the dykes who came before me who spent their lives making a meaningful and life-sustaining culture that centers our many experiences, that was whole other catastrophe, one I’m still absorbing.
I need other women, other lesbians especially, helping me fight against this death-loving culture, sharing support while we heal and create what life and freedom we can. My lesbian cultural heritage is precious to me now and I treasure the connections I’ve made with other radical dykes, from my elders to my peers. Part of my healing has been taking on the task of sustaining and creating radical lesbian culture, not just keeping it alive but helping it grow. The prospect that it could die out and that there are many, among them not a few “radicals”, who’d celebrate its death horrifies me but doesn’t surprise me. If women like me can destroy themselves without much comment being raised, if violence against women in general is a boring, old fact few concern themselves with, why should I be shocked that lesbians and the women-centered culture we create is ridiculed and marked for extermination? These women, this culture has healed me, helped me find wholeness and life beyond what I knew to be possible and so I give back to it, as I would give back to land that feeds and sustains me.
Claiming woman, as well as dyke and lesbian, generated far more power than any queer gender I tried to invent or new sex I tried to create through manipulating my body’s hormones. Trying to live as a genderqueer/man was a kind of immature magickal practice. There was some power and utility in it but not as much as I thought at the time. Passing as a man provided me a defensive cover moving through this society and calling myself genderqueer won me status and a place among the radical queer community, which meant literal nourishment and shelter as well as camaraderie and shared culture. It also shielded me from aspects of myself too painful and scary to look at, what I thought I couldn’t bear. But the way it kept me from pain hurt me still since it let the wounds fester. I didn’t even know how much hurt I was carrying around with me until I finally faced it and it started to heal. Healing was accepting rather than denying that I was a woman. I had unknowingly been denying my own power and capacity to get well.
When I used to hear myself called woman or female, I heard an order to be a mother, a fuckhole, subservient, pretty, docile, workhorse for little to no pay, some way to get something out of me I didn’t want to give. Now when I call myself female, I’m saying my resources are my own and they aren’t resources as much as they’re wilderness, a more mobile piece of land trying to get back with the rest, trying to re-establish connections. Female is a one word poem and a metaphor and a spell. Calling myself female and woman has helped me get back what was taken from me.
As many of us have been separated from living soil by layers of concrete and asphalt, as much as the sky is blocked from our view by towering structures of metal and brick and our nostrils plugged with exhaust, so have we been cleaved from our own most intimate land, our bodies. We have been disconnected from what shapes and animates our flesh, deprived of knowledge of the world around us, of our histories, of a true view of our cultures that is essential for actually knowing ourselves. In our present society there are far more working to ensnare our ability to know then to make us free. And the effort to make sense of the connections that make us who we are is also a struggle against our own tendencies towards ignorance, denial and delusion, which stems from a fear of punishment or pain inflicted on most of us since birth.
Many of us tell half-truths and live by obscured vision, seeing just enough to survive. There is no way to live without some contact and knowledge of how reality actually runs. The whole organism knows, even if parts of it, the parts that interpret and make meaning of sensations consciously, pretend to know something different. The organism does what it needs to do to survive and if this means knowing exactly what’s going on and lying about it at the same time, so be it. But such a life is lived in tension and is another stress upon the life force it would rather do without. So it accepts this for the sake of survival but it seeks at the same time to bring the pieces back together into wholeness, bring it all back into knowledge and sensation. Many people are selves at war with their organism, mirroring on a small scale the warfare of the larger world.
So I once was and so I still struggle but my movements are freer and my vision clearer. I feel whole in a way I never had thought possible during my days of fragmentation. Woman, dyke, female, lesbian, are words I use to point to my infinity. My woman’s body is strength, power moving and growing, changing as I act in the world, become more experienced and skilled. She is how I connect with the land I grow my food from, with the women I love, how I bring my words into the world through pen or keyboard. She holds my history. She is expansive enough to hold all of me, all my pieces as they find each other and figure out how to reconnect and heal back into each other. Finally I have space enough to live.