‘Instability, Incoherence and Opacity: zines, scenes, gender everything and the kitchen table’
Scarred, Shifting and Sacred Sites: an evening of art, advocacy and performance @ Autograph Sept 2016 curated by Something Human
Images by Ali Elisa from Autograph. Video footage to follow soon.
curated by Something Human
transcript read out by audience members: from https://masculinefemininities.wordpress.com/category/issue-1/
[This is not strictly a zine; it is an important gender minority document. I am not a theorist or an academic, just passionate about this subject and wanted to say something…so I guess it is both.]
S: Are your masculine and feminine identities separate or do they correlate with each other?
J: I identify as a switch, or a pendulum, and my masculinity and femininity are very related. When I present masculine for a while, my femininity comes back with a vengeance (laughs). I get depressed when I feel stuck in one mode. If I present just masculine for too long, I end up feeling grey, lifeless, like all the colour has been drained from my life. You know how boys grunt and move their bodies very sparsely, their shoulders and hips. This is the most, and the longest I have stayed in predominantly masculine mode. There are times I h8ave to remind myself that I am entitled to express myself, express femininity, to switch and change.
S: Why do you have to remind yourself?
J: Pressure from outside. Even within the trans community. You know how we often talk about standards of authenticity that we internalize and pass on to each other. That you are successfully trans if your masculinity is read as ‘real’ in the street. And then actually being in 8the street and wanting to pass, even if it’s just from point A to B. And that becomes easier if I tone it down a bit on the make up and the nail polish (laughs). Also getting worried if people now read me as a genderqueer male, this is not something I have a lot of experience with so far. I know how to negotiate the ‘gross lesbian/dyke’ thing but no one’s taught me how to survive the ‘sissy/faggot/batty boy’ thing. Which I worry will be even more vicious, because homophobic and transphobic people are more willing to beat up men, as they don’t deserve chivalry. Then there’s the pressures I put on myself. I guess I look back on longer patches of presenting feminine in my life than many of the FTMs or masculine genderqueers I know (or, to reframe this positively, I have a very broad gender repertoire). I often feel I have to conceal or make up for that past. Part of me sees it as inauthentic, as selling out my transness in order to fit in, find partners, be liked and loved. But that same femininity is now an integral part of myself, because if you do something for a long time it becomes you and it’s something you also need to reclaim and stay truthful to. I realized it makes a big difference presenting feminine as a female than as a male, and vice versa. So while both modes are authentic to my body and my personality, my choices are mapped onto different contexts, where the same presentation could get me either violence or social approval. Like, I miss things like exchanging smiles with shop assistants, which came easily to me when I presented feminine and looked female. People are friendlier again now that I am passing more as male, but for a long time, when I was perceived as a masculine female, that kind of social grease that oils your everyday survival, or passage through space, the friendly small talk on the bus, just wasn’t there. I felt like I had to keep my head down, avoid talking to people, become invisible, hard, cut off from the world.
How about yourself? Do you see yourself as masculine and feminine at the same time? At all times?
S: Sometimes I feel like it’s complicated and like I can’t always put my finger on whether they exist separately or whether they always exist together. And I feel like at different times it’s drawn out of me, my different identities, by different people. I feel like different people will draw out whatever they want out of me. But as for how I see myself, I see them really mingled together. In terms of how I grew up, I never had any sexist ideas about, you know, I played with boys, I was interested in doing boys’ things. I didn’t think that made me a boy, I still had that feminine identity, even though I didn’t claim it at that stage in my life, I do now, reclaim it. I didn’t set those things apart, I wanted to do what I wanted to do, whether that was things considered female or male. And I’ve kind of grown up with that same mentality, of wanting to.. finding it hard to be accepted for that, but allowing myself to be both. And it’s not always equal, but they both come with each other. I felt like partners have wanted me to be more male, or more female, same with society in general. And I obviously understand that’s about confusion. I think that’s hardest to understand for me when it’s people who are close to me. I think there’s a lot of sexism that’s engrained in people.
J: Like in your partners?
S: Yeah, I think people who are closest to me have found it more difficult to deal with. Like when I say I’m femme, I find that partners have felt threatened by that. Or felt that they shouldn’t be attracted by that, when they’re femmes themselves. And for me that seemed odd, because I hadn’t changed the way I behaved, or who I am, it’s just that I’ve told them that that’s what I am. And it’s almost the concept, or the reality of what that means. I think that as I’ve become more male.. I think I’ve struggled to be accepted as male, the male side of me has been harder for people to accept. So I’ve tended to focus more on my male side in my transition, and it’s only now that I feel comfortable with that side of myself, through the taking of hormones, for the most part, that I can allow myself to share femininity with others, but more importantly myself. It’s felt like a coming out in itself (J: The femme coming out). And I’m not so afraid to show it.
J: What kind of reactions have you got from femme partners to your femme identity?
S: I think more recently I’ve been lucky, in terms of subconsciously expressing it, I think I’ve attracted partners who are more open to that, and embracing it. I think it has been difficult for some partners, how they’ve been conditioned to behave towards trans men, trans boys, and there’s a lot of assumptions going along with that, in terms of how you don’t want to be touched, and how you do want to be touched, and it’s a reconditioning.
J: Like you recondition them. (S nods.)
I’d like to say something about the partner thing. Because I used to identify as a femme, as a result of being in a long-term relationship with a butch lesbian whose gender and sexuality is very much about butch/femme. I’m feeling very ambivalent about that phase of my life. Which was most of my 20s. (S nods.) Because on the one hand I loved her, fancied her, wanted to be with her, wanted to be like her, and since she only did femmes that was the only place in her life I could get. I also got a lot out of it, like being treated really well. Which I still associate with butches, this gentlemanly very caring very female way of being with someone. And it was nice to be the pretty one, I like it when people find me pretty and intelligent (laughs), and femmeness provided that for me.
But I have always been a switch, always wanted to also express masculinity … I’m struggling with my ex over this, who is still in my life, because she sees my masculinity as inauthentic, she insists I’m a totally different person now, like I took over that beautiful feminine body (laughs). It’s funny because I remember her saying things like ‘You’re so cute in this picture, you look just like a boy.’ Or with this haircut or that shirt. I would wear her clothes, which she didn’t like, because I would break them in and they no longer fit her. So I felt she saw and even fancied my masculinity, in a butch/femme kind of way. This is painful, because I realize how codependent I have been in my gender identifications. Something I shared with R I think (our friend who died). That I felt much more comfortable with other people’s bodies, genders, sexualities than my own. I would happily do femme for this butch, straight girl for that FTM, and faggie SM top for that bicurious boy.
explore in all directions. After trying to fit myself first into a female frame, and then into a transsexual male frame, I have quickly become very genderqueer, multigendered even, where I try not to be too fussed about is this male with a feminine foreground or masculine with a female background. And where I want to reclaim all that instability, incoherence and complexity as authentic parts of my personality. Or as possibilities. That I can choose to explore or not, depending on the constraints I currently face, like holding down a job, getting from point A to B safely, or pulling this or that person.
I really like my body at the moment because it’s malleable and can pass as all kinds of things. I can walk into a gay bar and a lesbian and a gay boy will check me out… (laughs) If I’m lucky… I hope. (S: You are lucky.) I can engage with both and can feel part of both these communities.. and the trans community. I do feel queerer than ever these days, and it’s not because I think my way of expressing gender is superior to others – I want to stress that, coz I think there is an assumption that genderqueers are superior to transsexuals. I guess I feel queer because I feel like I am a gender and sexual outlaw in kinship with all these different communities and a bridge between them in a way as well.
S: There’s so many threads that I can totally relate to, even though we’ve had very different pasts, especially with partners. I’ve also felt like a chameleon, that was my way of surviving as I was growing up, in quite a traumatic abusive situation, it was always about surviving, and being the right person in the right moment to the right person. And I think I’ve carried that through with my gender identity. I don’t know how much it directly links in with that, but I’ve noticed looking back on my past relationships it was very easy for me to be a chameleon, to change and shift in different situations with different people. I’ve always honoured their wants and needs, didn’t really think too much about my own. Whilst at the same time I did manage to be myself in my expression. I presented more masculine/male but left how that was interpreted to the other person and I’ve always found people who’ve been attracted to that. So things haven’t been questioned? I always accepted it was positive attention, and so never questioned, the affirmation of who I was and what they found attractive in me. I never really questioned why partners wanted what they wanted from me, I just willingly gave it. And I think that was very destructive. It wasn’t recognizing myself, or honouring myself and who I was.
J: Are you still worried now that your maleness will not be seen when you present feminine?
S: Hm, it is something that I still worry about. I feel like currently I pass as genderqueer, so I feel like there’s more options. But I do feel that if I express my femininity that people won’t recognize my maleness. Because people don’t assume that you can be both still. I have had a lot of people tell me that I look very male in my femininity. And I guess it’s something that I’ve never realized people perceive until recently. And I’m presuming it’s because of the hormones. (J reminds S of the situation with the makeup, when S bought makeup but was allergic to it and had to be hospitalized, but then decided to wear the same makeup for a photo shoot and later a queer party). It’s funny because I never felt like putting on makeup when I was younger, because my mother forced me to. It was a certain type of makeup, to appeal to men. And on the queer scene now I really enjoy drag and dressing up, and I’ve always enjoyed that side of things, even growing up. The freedom to explore, and not having boundaries. And in terms of meanings that are attached to things as well. Like wearing makeup to attract a man, versus wearing makeup to enjoy yourself. (pause) But I did also have allergies, growing up, to makeup. So I tended not to wear a lot of it. And so people read me as being butch or more masculine, more female-masculine-identified, when I didn’t feel so.
J: I have become much more extreme in expressing femininity since masculinizing my body and adopting a male background presentation. Like the drag-queening photos that you and D-K took of me. I feel less self-conscious about my body and happier to show off flesh, my legs especially, which is definitely a result of the T, coz it shrinks away those hips (laughs).
I had a lot of dysmorphia and body issues when I was younger. Coming to terms with them and coming out as trans was actually very linked for me. It was only when I stopped messing about with food and trying to lose weight which was also always about trying to become more petite and attractive as a female and shrinking away those muscles. So when I stopped doing that and looked at my body for the first time and gave it that space to look the way it was meant to, without manipulation, I realized that I had a more masculine body, and that was fine. Actually I really liked it and I started going to the gym, and then I started on homeo-T and then on synthetic T, to express that love and exaggerate those features that I had learnt to love. Which is ironic because gender dysphoria is often considered hatred of your body. When I think about these things, like how did I become trans, I have to be careful not to slip into this ‘What caused it?’ pathologizing frame… but I do find it interesting. For example, exploring hyper-femininity seemed like an organic precursor to becoming male. It was only in my early 30s and late 20s that I started experimenting with extreme femininity, and I think that it actually freed up space to swing back, or swing into, extreme masculinity. It’s all about giving yourself permission to gender your body on your own terms.
I also think that sleeping with non-trans men was very important to my trans coming out. On the BDSM scene, I met a lot of male subs who wanted to do gay things with me, had gay rape fantasies, wanted to be fucked… And obviously heterosexual BDSM can be problematic with regard to queer and trans stuff, as it often reduces it to a fantasy or a fetish. But for me it was a really important space, where for the first time I met people who desired my maleness. Which I never found on the queer scene. Because on the queer scene people didn’t fancy me that way, because I wasn’t a classical genderqueer person, wasn’t butch enough. So the BDSM scene was a really important practice ground for me.’