November 27, 2010

In which I do not discuss the many awesome parts of my vacation, in favor of whining

[In addition to all of our awesome visible and identifying columnists, we also have some awesome anonymous columnists that for one reason or another must use a pseudonym (and pseudopic?). Details on anonymous columnists here.]

And now we discover the danger of assigning me to Saturday mornings: I like to sleep in late. Especially when I'm feeling a little unhappy.

Luckily, though, I bring a revelatory insight: the closet sucks, y'all.

At Duke I generally don't tend to feel closeted, because at Duke I don't actually pretend I'm a girl. I just don't always correct people when they make the wrong guess. It's not exactly comfortable, but who really expects to be their most genuine, authentic self in Chemistry class? And if the wrong guesses start to get to me, I can just talk to a friend (or my girlfriend) to get called the right name, or bind for the day, and I feel better. It's not my fault people don't see the obvious, so it's not really the closet.

No, the closet is when I encourage people to misgender me. Which is... this weekend. My mom likes me to bring laundry when I come home (seriously, if I don't she'll complain that I don't need her any more and spend the vacation trying to bury me under cups of tea) but I could only bring my girly laundry. So, today my mom asked why I brought thirty pairs of underwear, ten shirts, and some pajamas-- "You do... wear pants, don't you?"-- and I told her yet another half-truth: "The laundry was all over my room, so I only grabbed some of it." Sure, I heavily implied that the selection was random, when in reality I obsessed over every article of clothing to make sure it conformed appropriately to her standards (that is, I checked everything for rainbows before putting it in the suitcase) but it wasn't technically a lie.

The rest of it is lies, though. Lies, lies, lies. I think this is the heaviest irony of trans life: you know how people generally imply that trans folks are lying about their gender? Like, the "trans panic" defense, used (successfully, alas) in so many murder trials: "when I found out it was really a man, I just had to kill it!" Or, the murder mystery I watched with my mom last night-- "it turns out he was really a she!" There's the transphobic idea that the gender you were assigned at birth is your real gender, but there's also this idea that if you say you're anything else, you're lying and deserve what's coming to you. Well, I do feel like a liar, all the time-- when I tell people I'm not a man.

I'm not a religious person even a little, but I have a strong sense of honor. I hate lying.

Part of it is that I'm not a very good liar, so to maintain the facade I have to forget the truth a little. I grew so accustomed to the facade that I showed the rest of the world that I actually had no idea what was underneath until this semester when I decided to drop it. (Turns out: there was a man under there! Other than that, pretty much the same.) But I've always had a special facade for my parents. I wasn't just their daughter, I was the daughter they always wanted-- which means, I was straight, I was femme, I didn't curse, I didn't drink, I definitely didn't have sex, I wasn't a feminist, I wasn't an activist, I wasn't an atheist... I got to be a geek, but that was pretty much it, in terms of resemblance to my actual self.

And today, right now-- that's who I am! Sure, I've holed myself up in my room to write this, but I'm wearing pearls. It's only been a few days but I already feel like my sense of identity has been eroded away. (Not just my gender identity-- my whole identity.) I called my girlfriend last night-- from inside a literal closet, with three closed doors between my and my family-- just to hear her say my name. My real name. Which is Lawrence.

So, to remind myself who I am for the rest of the weekend, I open the comments up to all your Trans 101 questions. Just call me by my name, my real name, and I'll answer anything you want to know. Don't worry about dumb questions, personal questions, or even unintentionally offensive questions-- I did a lot of 101 in my lesbian days and I know what I'm signing up for. If you're nervous, that's what anonymous comments are for.

So ask away! I think it'll help both of us.


  1. Lawrence! Thank you so much for posting this. Here's a question a friend and I were just talking about today:

    What would you like to say about feminism? As a transman, do you think you'd like to be active in the movement yourself? Also, another question I'm curious about: I'm really big on providing "women's space" on campus, but at the same time, I don't want to be exclusive towards those who don't identify within the ginder binary, or those who identify as trans or genderqueer, and I certainly don't want to "gender police". What would be your response to "women's space"?

    p.s. thanks again for posting this. :D I hope they do a trans 101 again at the LGBT Center while I'm at Duke!

  2. Megan, great question! It's... complicated.

    The uncomplicated part: I am 100% a feminist and want to be as activist as possible about that. I've been a feminist for years.

    The complicated part: I, personally, feel the desire to be included in female spaces, but at the same time feel wholly uncomfortable in them.

    The desire: I identified as female less than a year ago, so I formed the habit of enjoying and encouraging women's spaces, which I agree are completely vital. So I still have those instincts. And I still have a connection to the twenty years of my life that I did live as female, which I think gives me a totally different relationship to feminism than cis men. (i.e., I may have male privilege now-- or will when I start actually passing as a cis man-- but I "get" women's experiences in a way cis men can't.) And, well, most people still see me as female so in a lot of ways I'm still living that life.

    The discomfort: I'm not actually a woman. So it's easy for me to feel like an intruder or an imposter in woman-centric environments, even when I have been specifically invited. I also tend to fret that people will get the wrong impression about my gender, and don't want to overemphasize my connection to womanhood-- it was there, but it's over now; I'm coming to realize that I'm a pretty effeminate guy sometimes, but it's so, so different from being feminine, or being a woman (even being a butch woman) that I get uncomfortable if I think others will misunderstand.

    In terms of what to DO about that-- to me it makes sense to open women's spaces to people whose lives have included womanhood, and let people decide for themselves what that means. I get the feeling it can be particularly hard for trans women to approach these spaces because it is often much more difficult for them to pass as cis, and yet often they could benefit the most from having a safe space to be female. Especially in the early stages.

    I mean, someone could easily make the argument that it's cissexist to allow transmen into women's spaces because it suggests that we are "really" women, so these are just my two cents.

    Feminism itself, though, is not women-only, so I definitely want to be involved. And just as I think feminism is a necessary part of ending homophobia-- much of the hatred for gay men stems from hatred for women and the fallacious idea that gay men are somehow womanly-- feminism is vital to ending transphobia. So feminism hasn't become any less vital to my happiness with my transition-- I've just had to shift my perspective a little.

  3. "In terms of what to DO about that-- to me it makes sense to open women's spaces to people whose lives have included womanhood, and let people decide for themselves what that means. I get the feeling it can be particularly hard for trans women to approach these spaces because it is often much more difficult for them to pass as cis, and yet often they could benefit the most from having a safe space to be female. Especially in the early stages."

    This is such an amazing point!!! It makes so much sense to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. Lawrence, I'm sort of in love with everything that you wrote in your post and everything that you said in your reply to Megan. I'll be back with replies/thoughts/etc (about feminism and women's spaces) when I don't have a paper to write :-/

    But for now, a trans101 question:
    I struggled with this a little while ago and I think I've since reconciled it and figured out where I stand, but I'd still want to hear your perspective...I'm unashamedly pro-choice. When the anti-choice group started organizing last year, I got really fired up. I was inspired by a pair of overalls on which a friend painted an anatomically correct skeleton which matches where it is on her body (ie: the sternum is roughly on her sternum), and decided I wanted a uterus shirt. On the chest, it says "mine," and on the lower abdomen it has a uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. I was afraid that maybe wearing this shirt was transphobic--that is, I'm a cisgendered woman wearing a shirt with female reproductive organs on it. Is it like parading my cis identity? If it is, is it transphobic (and intersexphobic [they're different...i know and i promise i'm not 'grouping them together'. both seem to apply in this case!])in the same way that straight people parading their heterosexuality is often homophobic? If it is, how can I accomplish the same thing in a transfriendly way? A friend of mine suggested that she didn't think it was transphobic because I wasn't making a statement that said something like "you're only a woman if you have a uterus" or "if you have a uterus, you are a woman," rather it was a true statement about myself and that my organs are mine (feminist sarcasm: imagine that!!). I actually wrote a blog post about this this summer when I was making the shirt but didn't post it because I thought maybe I was being a little "far out there." I sent it to someone but they got busy and never got back to me, so I just let it go. Anyways, thoughts?

  5. Risa, I'm actually going to ask my girlfriend (who is a trans woman) what she thinks, because I don't feel comfortable speaking for her and I don't think my perspective is necessarily the relevant one here. I've written and deleted, like, eight thousand words but for now I'm just going to say: I'll get back to you.

  6. Hey. This is totes unrelated to your post. but did you know that they have a TransTalk (I forget if it's on a Tuesday or a Thursday...) at UNC? A bunch of trans students meet up somewhere on Franklin St for coffee and chatting. I know we don't have a ton of programming (read: none) at Duke, I could get more info for anyone else who is interested.

    But on a more related note: What is your personal preference for gender presentation? Not just man vs. woman... but is there a specific "type" of male you prefer to present as?

    I have more questions, and I mostly just want to know about you.... so feel free to pick and choose the ones you want to answer.

    How do you feel about drag shows?
    Would you have any interest in speaking on a trans student panel? (I think we should have more trans awareness events...)
    Do you prefer to identify as trans vs male/female?
    What's the most comfortable "male" space for you? "Female" space? Is there any spaces that are gender-free?

  7. ^ I second all of Summer's questions.

  8. Lawrence, thanks so much for opening yourself up to our questions! My question is, how have you dealt with the hurt/anxiety of being in the closet around your family? I'm not closeted, but my family doesn't accept my identity and I feel debilitated by that even when I'm not around them. I know I'm not the only one in this community who has to become an different person when I go home... Do you have any advice?

  9. WOW I'm definitely repressing an urge to add to the extensive list of questions, but you didn't post this to be interviewed I guess.
    I didn't even really have anything to say after reading the post necessarily, but your initial response to Megan was incredibly cogent. I'm looking forward to your perspective on the blog and I mean that in the most sincere way, or I wouldn't have said it. Braaaaaaaavo

  10. Lawrence, you are an inspiration. Thank you so much for posting this. Keep up the good work!

  11. Also, I've been thinking about this post all day, so in lieu of just posting 100 questions, we should just be friends and have conversations over tea in my queerhaus. && If you find me to be tokenizing you, please do say so. It's crazyfrustrating because there has been so much silence around trans related topics and conversation that its great to have a student responding.

  12. Anonymous 7:48 SAME HERE.
    Being around my family is so exhausting. I'm not closeted, but they're not very accepting at all. I recently likened being around them for Thanksgiving to being around Dementors (yes HP reference); they just suck my identity/comfort/happiness from being content with myself right out of me. They're not awful people, far from it, but they can be intentionally/unintentionally hurtful if the opportunity presents itself. And so, I kind of felt stifled all Thanksgiving break.

    Anyways, thanks so much for being so open Lawrence. :) You are quite the popular one amongst the community, and we're all very curious. As my family struggled to grasp my "bisexuality" I can only guess how your family would struggle to understand how you identify. My understanding of trans people has always been a bit cloudy, but I can definitely read your answers to these questions and come about a bit of clarity.

  13. Once again I am blown away by everyone's responses! I have flown back to Duke and been cheefully reunited with my girlfriend, and am feeling much more like myself. Prepare for the longest comment in the universe:

    Risa, my initial response was that I would totally give you a high-five, but I thought my girlfriend might be saddened because the not-having-a-uterus thing can be a source of pain for her. However, she says she would also give you a high-five, because in this context the message is so clearly about your ownership of your body. She said that she felt that anyone who tried to criticize you from the perspective of transphobia might just be trying to mask a less-progressive objection. I would add that the shirt would definitely be a statement that you are cisgendered, but that it is not inherently transphobic in and of itself to say you are cisgendered. For the two of us anyway, the message of bodily autonomy is such a key issue for the trans community that it all balances out. There no Trans Seal Of Approval to be given, but that's our... four cents, I guess.

    Summer, I've been forwarded info about TransTalk before (but never gone), but thanks! As for all your questions... well, we should definitely get tea and just hang out some time, but I'll give them a stab anyway.

    When describing gender presentation, I find butch/femme to be a less problematic dichotomy than man/woman or masculine/feminine because it leaves more room for variation, in my mind. It seems wrong to call a woman "masculine" for behaviors which women do, demonstrably, engage in; "butch" seems to carry less judgement of "you are not conforming to the norm!" -- if that makes sense.

    So with that said, I'd say I am very femme, as a guy. I'm also very, very queer. I'm a feminist making up my own performance of masculinity and I like that it's not very Traditionally Male. Gender has always felt like a performance to me; the big thing about transitioning is that I enjoy performing it now, and it comes more naturally. But that doesn't mean I can't have fun with it. :)

    Drag shows: fun! Gender is something that people should feel free to play with a little. I totally want to perform in the drag show, actually-- I'd bind, and then put fake boobs on top, and it would be a ton of fun. My main problem: I can't dance.

    Speaking on a student panel: scary! I'm defaulting to out around the center and in the LGBT community in general but I'm still in the closet on most of campus and likely to keep it that way. Also, I've only identified as male for less than a year. I don't feel comfortable speaking to anything but my own, personal perspective.

    My identity: it's complicated! I identify both as a man and as a trans man fairly freely. Because my transition is only just starting, and because I am doing a lot of trans activism, the trans part is more important to me than it may be to other trans people. But at the end of the day, man is who I am and trans is how I got here.

  14. Turns out there's a character limit on comments. Oops. Well, here's the second half of the essay:

    Comfortable gendered spaces: That's a tough one. The only place that I feel comfortably, effortlessly male all the time is my girlfriend's room, because I can always trust her to gender me correctly. My own room (when she's not there) is the only place where I am able to stop "feeling" my gender at all, because there's no one there to gender me. (I am obviously still male when I'm alone in my room but I don't "feel" male-- I'm just me, chilling. Whereas when I'm with my girlfriend, my gender is constantly being reaffirmed by how she relates to me.) However I don't think these apply as "male space" or "gender-free space" in a wider sense.

    I don't really go to "female spaces" any more, for the reasons I mentioned to Megan. I also don't really go to "male spaces" because I'm not yet confident of being accepted as "one of the guys." But rather than focusing on gender-free spaces I seek co-ed environments. The closer a space comes to gender parity, the more comfortable I feel, because I know that whichever gender people see me as, I can fit in. I'm not convinced that a gender-free environment is possible or even desirable; rather, a space that's not meant to focus on one gender should strive to be inclusive of all genders.

    Anon 7:48, I came out to my family as a lesbian when I was 15, and they completely did not accept that, so we all sort of pretended that I had never said anything. So I know what's it's like in both kinds of closets, but I'm not really sure that I would recommend my experiences as a model!

    I mostly focus on the fact that I do love my family. We all share a really quirky sense of humor so nobody can make me laugh as hard as my family can, and I just try to enjoy the kinds of love that they can give me, and try not to think about the rest. It was easier when I was just a lesbian, because although sexuality comes up in conversation a lot more than straight people think it does, it doesn't come up nearly so often as gender identity. I think that's why this experience was more painful than the rest-- literally every sentence anyone said to or about me erased who I was.

    Before this break, I would have said that I was happy with the deal we had made. I wasn't giving up more than I could bear, and what I was getting was enough to make it worthwhile. But pretending to be straight when you're single anyway is WAY easier than pretending to be female when you're somebody's boyfriend. So right now I'm re-evaluating the trade-off. If I had to offer advice, I'd say that you have to make sure you're not needlessly torturing yourself. If hiding your identity hurts too much, it may actually be worth the familial disapproval of being a little more open. I got my hair cut a while ago even though I knew I'd get flak from my parents because it was worth weathering their disapproval, and it totally was.

    Everyone else, thanks again for your support! It's great to hear from everybody and know that people are interested in what I have to say. I don't mind going on and on for as long as people are interested in asking me things-- I used to blog daily, when I had my own blog, and the urge to type has come back in full force. Also, feel free to email me at lawrenceevalyn (at) gmail (dot) com any time!

    And welcome back to campus!

  15. I've literally been refreshing this page waiting for a response. I'm super into all of this. Just to comment briefly on the idea about the panel... I wouldn't imagine it would be any different than just your experience. No pressure, but something to think about.

    My first year, we had a trans panel, and it was so transformative for me in thinking about inclusion. Not that it's your requirement to educate all of us, but I can appreciate being told what's what when I'm ignorant.

  16. Lawrence, I hope you're still checking the comments and will see my question. This came up tonight in some conversations I was having and I just don't know what the respectful thing to do is. I know you can't answer for all trans identified people, but some perspective would still be good.

    What names and pronouns do you use to talk about someone when you're talking about a time before they came out? I know to use preferred pronouns and names, etc, for "now," but what if I'm telling a story about someone's childhood or another time during which they weren't presenting as their target gender?

  17. My gut instinct is that it's better to retroactively apply the pronouns that you now know are correct. That's how I talk about my girlfriend's childhood obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I myself would feel much more comfortable hearing someone say, "when Lawrence was a little girl, he was obsessed with Mulan" versus hearing the same thing with female pronouns. This is because I tend to think of coming out as the recognition of something that has been true all along, rather than a change in identity.

    As always, though, if someone requests something different, that is the best thing to do. Thanks for asking, I hope that helps! :)

  18. Hi Lawrence,
    I know I'm a bit late, but I'm just jumping on the bandwagon and saying thank you for your posts! The part about comfortable gendered spaces especially resonated with me and made me understand my cis-gendered privilege a million times more. Like really understand it, which is pretty big considering that a month ago I didn't even know what cis-gender meant (shout-out to Risa for using the term on here and educating me!). Anyway, thanks and I look forward to reading more from you!