Monday, January 31, 2011

Transgender, Authenticity and Burning the Mask...

A wonderful blog post from my beloved Dreamweaver has provided much food for thought. I want to share some rambling thoughts of my own. Authenticity is a profound issue for us. We desire to live authentically. And we live in a world and culture that demands that we be anything BUT authentic. Dreamweaver approached this from the view point of menopause, which has had a huge influence on her life - both our lives. Many women's cycles affect them deeply in an almost Jekyll/Hyde fashion; Wordweaving was definitely one of them. And for the first few years we were together, I rode the roller coaster with her. The cessation of this dark merry-go-round with the arrival of menopause has felt almost as though her mind cleared for the first time in years, but then you have to look at the fact that she was having double periods her whole life. She was never out of the swing of the cycle, ever, until menopause hit. I am also almost three years older, and I may, just may, be starting perimenopause...maybe. We can hope.  %$#@ cycle is rolling as usual, no real changes.I have to admit that as cycles go, my situation is profoundly mild...virtually no cramps, no PMS, no wild seesaw of emotions - just a slight moodiness or emotional sensitivity.  I really in some ways have no real reason to be grumpy compared to what Cyn went through.

 In point of fact, being FtM transgender means I loathe my cycle, because it is a monthly unavoidable collision with my female body. Few women that I know, despite attempts to tie the cycles and periods to wisdom and womens mysteries, etc actually like their periods.It might be pointed out that a huge dislike of the cycle of womens periods comes not from the periods themselves, but rather from the culture we live in that makes us deny our bodies needs and instincts and cycles. A very cogent point indeed.  My dislike of my cycle however,  is off the scale because of being transgender. It just adds an unimaginable element to it that is very hard to explain, unless you have been there. But looking at the cycles and changes of the body touches on only one part of our over all authenticity struggles. Despite the tidal pull of biology, it is not the sum total of what affects us.

Our culture affects us.
Our individual families of origin affect us. 
Our individual life experiences affect us. 

Our culture - let me reframe that - my culture, for this may be profoundly different somewhere else. The culture that I live in is, even after a century of the progression and history of womens rights and suffrage, profoundly patriarchal. It is profoundly consumer and time clock driven. The medical model still subliminally operates on the male being the standard for health care and acceptability. Women may only advance so far before hitting a "glass ceiling" in most professions. A woman is taught to deny everything possible about her self  entirely. Far too many women work the "silent second shift" I call it - you know, the one where she has put in her 8 or more hours of paid work (at generally less pay than a male counterpoint) and she goes home and then must cook the meal, do the laundry, cleaning, straighten up, get kids bathed and put to bed...and she is doing this as a single parent, or her husband is sitting with his feet is up because he is tired from his job that day. And then she must get up and do it all over again. And understand - there are profound exceptions to this - there are many men who get in there and split the chores right along with their wives. There are lesbian relationships where work is not decided equally, and one partner follows the patriarchal model and sits on her ass. There are families where the reverse is true and the man is doing the extra shift and not the woman. There are always endless individualistic variations. But over all, there is a general truth to what I have just set forth. I have seen it. I have lived it. Sit in a gathering of women, and  you will hear it, more often then not. And if a woman's periodic cycle is heavy and difficult for her, guess what...well, all that is just in her head. She's a bitch anyway. And no, she can't take a day or two to specifically rest and care for her body's shift in needs and feelings each month - what, does she think the world is going to stop for her ? Its all hormonal anyway, and thats just an excuse for women to get away with being lazy or with bad behavior. This kind of attitude is real among men and women. Trust.

 In modern America, there is no particular celebration or ceremony granted the beginning of a young woman's cycle or menarche.  She may have been told about it in advance as part of the whole "birds and bees" conversation about sex and changes in the body by her mother or other female relatives. She may know about it from older sisters and seeing their experiences. With the advent of the internet, she may research it on her own. Some sex education or biology classes in school may cover it where allowed. And it is not entirely impossible for it to come upon her with no warning at all. Her public rite of passage is the purchase of supplies to deal with it. And that is pretty much it. Other cultures - Japan, India, Australia, Nepal to name a few - have celebrations of special foods, gift giving, gatherings of female relatives who share experiences and wisdom.

Ulithi Menstrual House, Micronesia
 In Micronesia, the Ulithi tribe actually still maintains the ritual of a Menstrual House  where women go every month when their periods cycle to spend the time resting, being with other women, bathing and segregated from the rest of the world. Now, this does carry the idea of being segregated because of being unclean, or dangerous to men or mens magic and that does not sound good.. HOWEVER.... Imagine....if you are a woman, if when your period started, that instead of going to work or to school, you went to a house where you could sack out in a warm bath, sleep off and on through out the day, be with other women talking and resting, and stay there until the period was over. No alarm clocks. No dragging through the day crampy, tired, bloated and uncomfortable while working, running errands, doing laundry, chasing kids, pets laundry, classes, homework, no dressing out for gymn class (oh my god, there's a thought!) And you got to do this every month! And while you were gone, your spouse suddenly had the daily experience you have month in and and out - punch a time clock, chase the kids, fix the meals, clean up after the meals the kids the petslaundrygetkidstothebaseballgamesoccarpracticehavethebathroomdoorbangedonbecauseofemergency....when you got back, you might find the husband has a renewed appreciation for what you do. The culture might be structured for childcare for single mothers when their periods hit. Women might not be isolated in their homes and family units because she would have time with other women in her community. Business would be structured so that women dropped in and out at need, men's workloads might be lightened that week, or maybe they'd be granted a reciprocal weeks leave to be available to take over at home...impossible, right? Not really. It would take the alteration of the entire culture to put back into the space for womens cycles and bodies and I submit to you that whatever it became, patriarchal is not what it would be any more!

 And we wonder why women don't like their periods. Hel-lo! The menstration isn't the problem! The 24/7 stop for nothing, gogogo profit is god masculine modeled driven pace of America is the problem - and its none too healthy for men either. But thats a post for another time. So there's the cultural issue. Ignoring a woman's cycle is inauthentic. It becomes invisible. A curse. A burden. And one that falls on top of other cultural taboos and strictures women face - women must be skinny, have curves, wear make up, dress certain ways, behave certain ways, look certain ways...and heaven help her if she is heavy, too tall, masculine in appearance or dress,plain, under or over endowed, not interested in culturally approved things like make up, carrying a purse, or men, or doesn't want to have kids, or wants to be single, or heaven forbid, is transgender - male in a female body.

 A FTM either tears out his own heart and self respect and identity to conform, or suffers the consequences, some of them severe - being mistaken for a man in the woman's restroom , facing possible arrest for being a woman in the mens bathroom, constant discomfort colliding with the gender binary, being fired for being trans, even being in physical danger (though MTFs by far are in more danger and face much worse disapproval and hatred than FTMs and that too is driven by misogyny and culture,) My culture is a space where authenticity is punished violently.(I have to admit, I wonder what does a transgender of either stripe, FTM or MTF experience in the Ulithi culture in the menstrual houses? There's a thought...) To conform to the female gender box as a transgender is to wear a mask - one that might as well have razor blades on the inside slicing your skin and body at every turn....

The family is the vehicle in which our culture is conveyed to us. But each family is unique as well. So, perhaps you are one of the fortunate few whose family empowers authenticity - whatever you are is respected, whatever you want to be is honored, respect and self - expression is practiced and honored. How many of us had that? Not many I suspect. Whatever a child's authentic self is, it sometimes seems like childhood is a process of suppression, not nurturance or encouragement. I am not, for the record saying that children should have no guidance regarding ethical behavior. What I am saying approaches cultural mores. How many vivacious, bright girls that wanted to be some career that might be male dominated, climbed trees, brought home frogs, had scabby knees and came home triumphantly banged up from dumping the class bully on his ass, by puberty were moody, silent, told climbing trees was not lady like, put away your dreams of this or that, a young lady does not behave thus and such. Young men go through this too - do not cry, its not manly, forget the violin, you by god are going to be a man and play football, and for GODS sake do not have any interest in womens clothing or dress! Don't shake your head and say this doesn't still happen. It does. In the 1980's, 63 years after women won the right to vote in America, began to hold property, work in male dominated jobs, and only 22 years ago from where I stand now....after being told all my childhood that I could be anything I wanted to be, I announced to my parents that I wanted to major in studio art. This was brutally and summarily shot down in a series of violent verbal arguments on the reasoning that if I must major in art, it had to be an Art Education major - if I had to work it must be as an art teacher until I got married. I kid you not. Not only did I not want to be a teacher, I have no ability to teach, especially not art! It made my parents words I had been told - you can be anything you want to be - into a lie, and broke my heart and trust in them. And how many GLBT kids are terrified of coming out, verbally or physically punished for their "deviance", thrown out on the street for not conforming to being heterosexual. And at the bottom of the ladder are the trans kids - most of them emotionally and physically battered, abused, denied, cut off. Wear the mask, or you are not part of this family, we will not love you. How rare is the parent who truly accepts their son or daughters individuality with unconditional support and love?

Here's one example of what it should look like...Jazz, a transgendered little girl who announced as early as age two that he was a little girl. The parents after researching and struggling and wrestling with all the issues, waded in and supported Jazz in coming out as and living full time as their daughter...and will carry through with hormonal treatments at puberty if Jazz continues to insist that is what she wants to do and will support her choosing transitional surgery if she so desires after she turns 18. Jazz does not wear a mask...Jazz is what she is with the unconditional love and support of her family.

Not all kids know as young as Jazz. I knew I was different and that I didn't fit, somehow. Tomboy was the closest label I had, and I was too sheltered and over protected to have any sort of language or knowledge to figure anything out. Sometimes the masks are forced on us so early we don't even know they are there on a conscious level - all we know is we do not fit, we are unhappy. I used to  breathe a sigh of relief to get back into a pair of jeans and scrape off the makeup, loathing the heels, the dresses, the beauty parlor, the shower parties....chafing and pulling at something, never knowing the mask had been welded on to me.  And that in the future, for me to tear it off will take setting myself metaphorically on  fire. And I had the rarest of all rare childhoods - a happy one in a loving and functional home. Not perfect, but wonderful. Add dysfunction into the mix, which is present in 95% of homes today - add in divorce, add in drugs, add in abuse, add in indifference and neglect, add in mental a country where the family model remains the husband/housewife 2.5 children happy 1950's home that may have been a myth even then. And authenticity becomes all but impossible. Rebellion is the adolescents struggle for authenticity - and when kids are given no blue print for authenticity, no map for the journey to be healthy and whole and authentic - true to themselves and able to fit into community and honor others - then rebellion becomes dysfunctional and damaging.

Our individual experiences affect us - out side the home, we are the sum of myriads of tiny moments that become powerful motivators for why we do what we do - why we may willingly don a mask we realize doesn't fit us, even when we might not know why. I remember being cornered a number of times about not being like other girls, or vicious teasing and harassment associated with being a girl that tore me into of the final moments, that drove me nearly to despair as a teenager, was being cornered at my church in the formal dressing parlor of the womens room (where the brides changed on their wedding day into their bridal gowns or going away clothes, ironically enough) by a group of girls my age in the youth group and being forcibly told that I must wear make up, that I didn't dress appropriately, I did not act like a girl and no boy would date me or man marry me if I didn't straighten up and conform and start acting like a lady and a woman. It was like being dropped in scalding acid. I crawled out of there emotionally devastated, knowing I was miserable when I did the things they insisted I do, but not knowing what to do or how to refute them, or what I really was. Knowing I was not accepted, and not honored. I especially did not feel particularly loved that night either. I had no knowledge of how to resist them, no self confidence to say "NO! Thats not who I am and you guys are a bunch of jerks!"I was taught by my religion that a woman accepted what she was told to do.

 I have a thousand tiny stories, subliminal re-enforcers, glimpses of consequences, that all said you are a woman - you  must behave a certain way, dress a certain way, act a certain way, marry the opposite gender, be a victim, be subservient, accept being less than what you are, be the antithesis of what you are - accept the mask that you must wear, and the chains and the bondage that go with it. To be successful, happily married, to be a woman - because thats what you obviously are - you must set aside every need you have, others come first, the husband comes first, the children come first, the opinions of others come first...authenticity is rebellion, is damned, is unacceptable and is punishable by teasing, rejection, loneliness, ostrasization, hatred, isolation, danger and for some, by death.

And this goes beyond transgender, or feminism - this extends any prejudice. To racism. To social class. To the handicapped. To any and all who bear the ultimate mark of Cain in this society - the stigma of being different. And all of us find ourselves wearing masks, struggling with inauthenticity, forswearing our truths, foreclosing our identities. Some never take them off, never understand, never see what has been done, never understand what has happened.

And some of us pay prices that are far too high for nonconformity. For authenticity.
When we break, ripping off the masks and throwing them into the fire we run the risk of the flames ourselves.
For being greater than the sum of our parts.
For being authentic. 


  1. Yes, authenticity is a life struggle for many and the ultimate test of our integrity. And re menopause, I haven't had my period for 3 years now and it is SO WONDERFUL to be off that treadmill!

  2. Reading this reminds me so much of my childhood and day to day life. Today I am constantly questioned "why this, why that, why some other damn thing." Even amongst trans-people I don't fit into the expected role of a 'man'. My culture, the culture I live in, tries to define me, give me limitations and expectations that I can't meet no matter which way I turn. Over time I have learned that it is not their expectations that I should live by, but my own. That is my authenticity.

  3. Dr Christine Northrup argues that all women have about the same hormone levels as they enter their periods. The difference isn't the hormone level but how the hormones affect the brain that then results in bodily symptoms. Using myself for example, it means that the stresses of living with an undiagnosed, psychotic schizophrenic mother took such a toll on my body and mind, that there wasn't a lot of resilience to deal with the monthly changes. Indeed, the horrendous symptoms became a means to an end. If I couldn't stop, couldn't retreat and couldn't hide, then nearly passing out from blood loss and debilitating cramps meant I had to stop. Period. Thus the symptoms gave me what I need most. Rest.

    Menopause can have the same effect. But since I had already begun that journey of authenticity (something else that often begins with menopause), my symptoms now are decidedly light. Northrup would argue that I've begun listening to my inner wisdom and found the space which I need to occupy and gave my spirit room for growth.

  4. i hear this authentic child thing so often. i knew at 3 and was told to suppress it. hm. i think people know in their families, i think its handed down as a tendency. my grandmother tried to tell me who i was after i had been supressing it for 20 years. it wouldn't have done any good. sometimes it makes me angry, but sometimes i just think, it's another experience. i think all men have a supressed fem side. or would that be some women lie to themselves a lot? sometimes i don't think men really exist. what we call men are just exaggerated females.