I have decided to write at least 1,000 words per day, even if this does not include academic writing. I may not make very many points, well valid points at least. Some may be more lucid than others where points are made. But here it goes. It’s my hope that perhaps out of this, I can find some sense of self and purpose–and maybe others can as well.
I find myself preoccupied with gender. We sometimes call it transgressive gender identities: those gender(s) that seem to defy what have been called ‘normal’. Dean Spade has, at this point, written prolifically about it. My advisor, Paisley Currah is an unrivaled scholar in the field. Trans* seems to be, at least at this juncture, the curve-breaking topic among identity scholars. I wonder, however, at my own preoccupation with gender. Is it as intersectional we claim? Are we ever ‘intersectional’? I wonder, really, whether each of these concrete ways of being in the world intersect, but are rather imbricated. They are layered. They do not cross.
First, my preoccupation. Is my preoccupation with gender, with sex, because I, myself, am going through a kind of metamorphosis? I have taken to calling myself B. I have heard this from my friends, this diminutive, since I was in my teens. In fact, I asked several of my friends to refer to me as such earlier in life. Brandon. So formal. So gendered. There is a part of me that wants to defy the very essence of what this name seems to entail. A dick. A pair of balls. My morphological characteristics seem tied to that name. My race is tied to that name. I am trapped by that name. I have four names. Brandon. Lee. Harrison. Aultman. Each name, separated out like that, reminds me of a heritage that is at once free from all condemnation—the ahistorical white family whose ties to the slave south were sketchy at best. Adopted by my father, Aultman, born out of wedlock through my mother’s sexually liberating experience with a family friend named Jerry. Lee, the middle name that my forebears carried with them down my mother’s line, transforming from Lynn in the feminine to Lee, the masculine. Each of my mother’s kin seemed to carry that stamp. It’s as if the gendered creature of our family needed a double tattoo to remind us all of what we keep between our thighs, what dangles or hides there.
So I chose B. I ‘chose’. You see, that is the mystery of this preoccupation with gender. It seems at once, as Butler has said in her book Giving an Account of Oneself, that one is born into a normative framework that pre-dates you yet is always moving and fluid. The norms that surround and invade you, they make you. These are the forces that mold and scour your subjectivity, that erect your identity. And to think, then, that I simply chose ‘B’ as a means of escaping this thing, this network, this matrix, this field of normative power seems at once naïve and brave. Why naïve? The penetrating forces around me lead inexorably to being a part of it. I cannot not be a part of what has defined me as masculine, or what has produced the meaning between my legs—the fat distribution of my body. Brave, in that what I have done is told those forces to fuck themselves. I can name myself. I can respect and love that with which I was born, my name, Brandon. But only I can call myself that name. You cannot call me that name. In a way, I reclaim ownership of myself—be it from within those strange confines, those norms.
So I think: gender transgressive identities, why do they fascinate me? Am I, too, gender transgressive? In a paper I wrote, a foolish seminar paper framed from a facile reading of Simmel and Marx, I argued that we are all gender strangers—evoking the image of the stranger as a means of telling the narrative that we as social creatures are nevertheless independent of the social. As independent selves, we muster a capacity to shape and recompose those things called identity in ways that bear no resemblance to the social selves we put about us each time we enter the so-called social sphere. And so, again: am I transgressive? I place a feminine scarf around my neck, wear too tight a pair of jeans, or shoes too large and too garish to be considered traditionally masculine. I bleach my hair, apply facial creams, tint my lips. Are these the markings of a gender stranger, of a gender strangeness? But I am not yet transgressive. I have not yet fully crossed the border, la frontiera, of what society says is really transgressive. I have not cut up my genital self. I have not carved my flesh in the image of the other sex. I am still within a cis-ness that seems to lead to its own kind of inexorable end: sameness, equivalence.
Is that what weighs upon me? I remember when I was 16 and put glitter in my hair, and wore make up, women’s jeans, tight shirts. I remember feeling so liberated, so appealing and sexed. Not sexual. I felt as though this thing, this outward representation of self was who I was, what I was to become in this art of living and becoming. I was Brandon, also B. I am, I suppose, still that person—with debt, with a few college degrees to show I’m well read and can cite important people and what they have to say. But I am still that strange boy who craved difference, not sameness.
I suppose I chose queer, transgender, whatever the name is we as a community, or others as communities, have adopted for this reason: a longing to be that human being lost in the brilliance of becoming. How I wish that youthful art were still within me—and thus may be reflected in my present work.
Gender may indeed not be a social construction as Butler has so vociferously, so eloquently, and with such erudition, asserted. Gender may in fact be the very thing we recompose ourselves in very concrete, not parodic, ways. How we not only relate to others, but how we relate to ourselves. How we look at ourselves in the mirror each day in an attempt not at some strange Hegelian recognition; but to feel the comfort that the image staring back at us is indeed the image we expect of it. Mirrors don’t lie. We do. And I choose to be honest.
I put my laptop down, after having gone over the thousand word mark, and called my godfather and read aloud those preceding words. But I’m still struck by the question(s) of why gender, why now.
When I was working on my undergraduate thesis I was interested in the ways in which gender/sex economies influenced certain decisions to engage in female genital cutting. I looked at it through international law. I looked at it through local custom. I found myself drawing lines of distinctions between relativism and legal absolutism. I found myself perplexed by the vagina, by the genital sisterhoods that existed as a result of this practice and I wondered: if patriarchy exists, if this invisible force exists the pushed these women into such circumstances, then why do they feel pride in their bodies after?
But only the most horrific of the genital surgeries seemed to stand out to me. Those ones in the literature whereby the clitoris and labia were all but removed, shaved off like the carving of meat—and with nettles and dung, ‘repaired’. Menstruation was forever difficult. Urination too. And these women, on the their wedding nights, would suffer the painful urgency of penetration as their lover cut open the stitched-together pieces of their vaginas, what was left of their ‘natural’ beauty, and then enter them. Some would have anal sex instead, just to avoid the intense pain, the agony of vaginal intercourse. Their bodies forever ‘deformed’.
I awed, if that’s how one can say it. I was in awe. In the sense that culturally, and distantly, I stood miles apart from the understanding that this practice imparted onto a woman a token of femininity. That many of these women found that their vaginas were only beautiful after the surgeries were performed. These were their surgeries.
Marxists would disagree. What is claimed as one’s own is often under the guise of a false consciousness. How, in many instances, arrogant of them! How banal. To be told that you are not the owner or possessor of your own self. Instead, the body, the construction of it, belongs to another, an unknown unempirical force. We call it patriarchy. But these women called it sisterhood.
Even then gender found its way into my mind and wouldn’t leave. I graduated. Lost my mother to breast cancer. And at that, wondered how sex, how having breasts in this instance, became the death sentence for my mother. I was so fond of her. I loved her beyond friendship. She was a part of my soul, my consciousness. She had her uterus removed. Both of her ovaries. She had a double mastectomy. She was still a woman, though she asked whether that were empirically true. I know transmen who have undergone those surgeries and I think back to my mother’s cancer ridden body. I think: Oh what things we do to our bodies for health! How on the one hand I have those I love tearing flesh from bone in order to be true to that creature we see in the mirror. And for others I love, having organs stripped from the body because they have become cancerous, deadly, mortal, all too mortal. The things we do for health! Both of them equally for health!
If I am to meet my advisor tomorrow and have anything to say it would be this: I am writing a dissertation on the spaces that trans people occupy, and how these spaces are both influenced by and influence the trans people occupying them. How is it that space is transformed in ways that create the political unity and identity necessary for action? How does some organization that claims horizontalism and egalitarianism exist, maintain itself, through space and not do violence to those within it? How do large organizations do the same, all in the name of social justice?
Social justice, the application of equality, the notion that differences are valorized—the proposition that all those from every quadrant of being in this world are held up high and given a voice. A dream. An illusion. Except for the spaces in which such justice is realized. The small, microspaces in which the idea of social justice becomes the manifest realities of practice. But how? To what extent do these nomadic sojourners, the transemn and transwomen and genderqueers, and queer people come together to make space do the politics? Make space do the equality guarantee? Is this nothing more than a theoretical rant, a ploy to avoid having to deal with hard questions of truth, of politics, of government shutdowns and trends of partisanship? Why is it that when I speak of growing polarization in both houses of our Congress that people listen with an intent, with such an endearing respect. But when I speak of gender and sex and imbricating forces of social control, they look at me and sneer, ‘Theorist!’ Both assertions rely on observation, on theory, on some strange ontological fashioning that makes them real for someone to read, that places them on paper and puts them in journals. But one is spoken in the tongue of men. And one is spoken in the tongue of the other.
So does space matter? Matter matters. Ask a physicist or a chemist. Does space, equally, play its share in the fundamental drive of identity-formation, of the subjectivities that inhabit us all? Is this a quantifiable question? Do these questions have answers? Will they only lead me to ask more questions?
Ethnography is a science and an art. It is a science in that the methods employed are meant to be applied and reapplied again and again such that each ethnographer is held to a standard. It is an art because one cannot simply do ethnography as much as anyone can simply do a Van Gough, or a Matisse. It is a process. It is an ongoing relationship—a forging of realities within reality. It is the realization that there are narratives that go above and beyond, as well as below, those that we in academia believe exist. The mother of a transman did not become accepting of that transson simply because she watched Orange is the New Black. What for her was the moment where she realized she had a son? A survey poll will never apprehend it.
Where do I start? How do I start? At what point do I end? I am not looking for a solution to a problem more than attempting to define the problem. I am looking for a problem with no solution, in the hopes that a becoming-solution will appear. I will attempt to observe, to speak in the language of the observed, because no one has chosen to do so. I will not appropriate their oppression, because I am not one of their own. But I will lift up the representation of that oppression out of the opacity of everyday human experience and make academia know of its empirical presence, of its complexity, and how it constantly screams FUCK YOU to anyone who would say otherwise.