Eli, Rochelle and friends, Keene, NH

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When Eli was trying to decide whether or not to transition it occurred to him that it was possible he could manage in the world as a woman. He worried for a time that medical intervention — surgery and testosterone — were things people only got to choose if it were a matter of survival, a life or death situation. But his therapist at the time encouraged him to do what would offer him the best quality of life and for him that was chest surgery and t.

Living as a man comes with its own set of challenges, and Eli continues to ask himself many questions about what it means to have made and to continue to make the choice to take t and pass in the world as male, but he’s happy and has a lot of gratitude for the relative ease of his transition.

Eli comes from a super supportive family and never felt terribly isolated in his queerness. He came out as a lesbian in his early teens and met other trans guys in his mid teens and identified with them and began to think about the possibility that he might be trans, too. He understood there were options and resources available to him and he was brave and driven enough to explore them in a sober, self-loving way.

We met a few years ago in New York, introduced by mutual friends. At the time he worked at Columbia and I worked at Barnard so it was easy to meet up for lunch now and again and we’ve gotten to know each other slowly over time. I’ve always enjoyed his company and insights, how he can, all at once, be silly and light, incredibly thoughtful and uncannily mature.

When he invited me to Keene to spend some time with him and do a trans tour interview I was super excited. He told many stories I hadn’t heard, but one thing that’s really stuck with me was hearing him talk about how as soon as he knew he might be trans he chose to seek counseling, make his decisions and take action.

***

When I first arrived Eli’s partner Rochelle was busy making the best salad dressing I’ve ever tasted and some other things also beyond compare.

After the three of us caught up a little Eli and I went to the porch where it was cooler so I could more comfortably admire his llama shirt.

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Soon Eli’s friends Dana and Tracy arrived and we ate some cheese and had an exceedingly tasty dinner after which Rochelle took us all to see their garden plot.

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It was a beautiful night though the mosquitoes were out in droves. Rochelle lead us to  wild oregano patch and we all stocked up before going back to their place for a beautiful and fruity dessert. We chatted for a while over berries Eli and Rochelle had picked and froze the previous summer. Then I broke into the conversation and proposed we get to work.

***

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I had it in my mind that what I wanted to ask people to talk about during the interview was role models. I’d been thinking on the drive to Keene about my childhood and the strange ways in which I discovered masculinity. Was it a discovery? A proclivity? How was it that I knew at such a young age that no matter what anyone tried to tell me to convince me otherwise, I was a dude? Did I decide I wanted to be a dude because I wanted to be a greaser or did I want to be a greaser because…

There’s something about the masculinity in movies like Grease and The Outsiders and Rebel Without a Cause– beautiful, tragic, rugged and yet a little bit too beautiful, maybe even a little gay — that really drew the attention of a lot of my trans friends as kids. A lot of transmen and butches I know who are in my age range identified deeply with various characters of the Outsiders. I’ve even met a few people who named themselves after said characters. But for me, except for when it was about the Fonz,  it’s always been about Grease.

The movie Grease came out when I was seven years old and I remember getting a little comic book version of the movie with photographs instead of drawings and I would for some reason hide in my closet and read it out loud. There was a photo with a dialogue bubble close to the beginning where one of the T-Birds says “frickin A” and though I didn’t have a clue what it meant I practiced it over and over again.

“Frickin A.”

(me in my Fonz phase on the left below).

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Then, at the age of ten, I met Carry Lynn Piatrowsky. She played on my first softball team and she was the most boyish girl I’d ever met. She was skinny as a rail, had a boy’s haircut, always wore a baseball cap, never tucked her uniform in right, she was impetuous, charming, often hungry. She could eat two Big Macs in one sitting, messily, quickly, without any trouble. I was enthralled and envious. I still sometimes feel that way around certain types of masculinity.

One of my favorite memories involves a sort of invisible or even accidental role model. Around the time Grease came out the song Stayin Alive was released on the radio. It was one of my favorite songs, especially since I thought the lyrics went as follows: “you can tell by the way I do my walk I’m a womanman, no time to talk.” I wondered over and over again why a womanman would be so busy that he and she would have no time to talk. I imagined this womanman in my head and never once doubted his-her existence but was a little frustrated by the fact that they were always in such a hurry.

My faith in the obvious existence of the womanman gave me a sense of curiosity, wonder and pride that I wish I could still access. I was incredibly proud to be a masculine child but that all changed a year or two after I met Carry Lynn.

***

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As a kid Eli’s gender was fairly fluid. He lived with his mom and twin sister but though it was a home of “three females” there wasn’t any pressure on him to be any particular type of kid, so he didn’t feel terribly confined by or rebellious against girlhood. He was, simply, himself. He dressed boyishly whenever he wanted to and since rules surrounding gender expression weren’t something he was forced to grapple with or fight against he also at times enjoyed (and still does) dressing in a less masculine or more feminine fashion. He did girl things and boy things. He didn’t really have to choose one or the other and was pretty content with that scenario.

As time went on Eli felt a much greater affinity with guyness. When he was eighteen he sought counseling to figure out whether or not he was a transexual. He’d been thinking about it for a while by then and already had a subscription to GQ.

When I asked the question about role models I asked it in a broad way. I asked if there were things or people that folks looked to to emulate or things they pitted themselves against, as kids, or even now. I talked about how when I was a kid I specifically avoided doing things that would put me in the “girl camp”, i.e. I practiced the art of eschewing “girl things” and I told them of my emulation of The Fonz et all, the way I wore a dark shiny jacket, the closest thing I had to a tough looking leather jacket, over a white t-shirt and would zip it up an inch or so and strut around.

Dana talked about how they (I am going to use ‘they’ instead of gendered pronouns when talking about Dana because I don’t know Dana’s preference) wanted very much to do whatever it was their father was doing as a kid. They watched him fix things and build things and over and over again tried to engage with him during these activities, but Dana’s father always pushed  Dana away because Dana was “a girl”.

Eli thought for a minute.

“I’m flashing back to a very specific moment,” he said. “My senior year of college…”

He started talking about his therapist, the one who he went to when he was looking for answers about his identity, but then he got confused.

“I’ve had two therapists in my life. My senior year of college I went to therapy with the specific goal — I was like ‘I want to go to therapy because I want to figure out whether I’m actually a transexual or not” and then I did decide that I was. And then  I moved to New York and found a therapist with the intention of trying to figure out whether i wanted to transition or not and then I did decide that I did.

“One of these therapists.” He went back and forth for a minute. “It must have been Amy Jones? asked me ‘who were your male role models.'”

“It was Amy,” Rochelle said.

Eli smiled. “It was Amy…And, I was like, ‘well…uhhhhh…’

“And she’s like…’In your life.’

“And I was like Well….uh…….

“And she’s like, ‘anywhere.’

“And I was like well…uhhhh…Tintin!”

We all laughed, but when the laughter subsided Eli went on.

“Now I can think of more but at the time I really couldn’t think of anyone, any male people in my life I was close to. Maybe my dad but he’s always been not really that much in my life.”

I asked Eli how the question of role models came to the table at therapy.

“Well we were talking about what kind of man I wanted to be and trying to figure out how to go about my masculinity. Whether I wanted to transition and live as male or whether I wanted to try to continue just being a masculine female person. And she said let’s talk about masculinity and what you mean by that. Like who are your male role models and who do you see yourself as being like.” Eli sheepishly invoked the name again, in almost a whisper —  “Tintin.

“Who is worth noting, is like a perpetual twelve year old. He’s an adolescent, he never grows up, he never has any romantic relationships, though he’s exceedingly competent and basically lives alone. Well, lives with this older sailor so in some ways he’s kind of a twink and he has his little dog. But he’s in all these adult situations, he has a gun, so he’s like a kid and not a kid, and he works for a childrens’ newspaper.”

Eli kept talking and as he spoke seemed to be trying to work out or wrestle with the many contradictions and ambiguities of Tintin’s character.

“His style I was exceedingly fond of, always wearing suits and his little knickers and his little tie. And he holds a special part in my life because I learned to read on Tintin books when I was three. The family legend is I taught myself to read on Tintin books.

“So it’s funny that I chose this fictional and not that masculine character [as a role model].”

“There he is wearing a kilt,” Rochelle points to the wall.

“See,” Eli points, too. “He’s wearing a kilt on our wall.”

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“In a lot of ways he’s young,” Eli mused as we all looked at the Tintin picture on the wall.

“That’s the thing for me in thinking about whether or not I wanted to transition was thinking about growing up and about who I wanted to be as a grownup.

“Because I was a teenager when I was doing all this processing, trying to imagine myself as a grownup and an old person and kept ending up with little old man images. And I had this interesting conversation with my mom once, too, where she said, ‘you have this boyish charm about you and it’s wonderful but you should think about how long that’s going to work for you because as you get older you might find that you’re not able to be as boyish as you are now.’

“And I think she was talking strictly as a look and in terms of one’s physicality but that sort of stuck with me. I was okay with being this boyish androgynous person but what would happen later when I was no longer as androgynous seeming?…And seeming young. That’s the thing about seeming boyish is you always seem young. We all know this.”

Dana and I laughed because we understood.

“And not wanting to seem so young forever,” Eli went on. “Tintin doesn’t grow up. Somehow I felt like that was a key to my growing up was transitioning.”

I found Eli’s speech detailing his love of Tintin, but also his desire to move away from choices that might leave him feeling perpetually youthful, to be eloquent and profound. I find it hard to imagine a world in which Eli lacks emotional maturity, but I can deeply relate to the specific difficulties of being transgender and being in so many ways outside of the realm of what it means in our culture to be or look grown up.

***

Eli’s twenty-four now and started transitioning at twenty. He and Rochelle got together right before he started t.

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For their first three years together they lived in New York and enjoyed the feeling of being visibly queer and part of a queer community with lots of trans people — where people can, if they want, be recognized as trans.

Now they live in Keene and their options for being out as a queer couple are a bit more limited. When Eli tells people he’s transexual they often react by designating him as female — calling him a girl. This happens with a lot of guys I know and so even if they would prefer to be open about their transexuality it tends to be too painful and frustrating.

Often Eli and Rochelle tell people that they both used to be gay and then they fell in love with each other, so that now they’re sort of a queer straight couple. This helps to give them some sense of queer visibility. And Eli often feels that people who don’t know he’s with Rochelle assume he’s a gay man, and that can be comforting.

***

During the interview the conversation soon veered away from the topic of role models. Rochelle talked about a book she’s been reading that intends to explain various biological differences between cissexual male and cissexual female humans but acknowledges there is often more fluctuation within these male and female categories than between them.

We wondered about scientific things — what male physiological characteristics might be chromosomal vs hormonal for example, and what prejudices and preconceived notions might drive or direct and perhaps confine scientific studies of sex and gender.

And we talked about the strange and sometimes strangely compelling binary structure of gender in our lives. Rochelle identifies as cisgender but also gender queer. She is interested in living in a world where the masculine/feminine male/female binary dissolves or fancifully explodes. Eli, Dana and expressed that we felt pretty attached to the binary– to our masculine identities.

At some point in the evening Eli recommended the book “Whipping Girl” by Julia Serano and talked about using the term cisgender or cissexual (see, I’ve already used them!) to identify people whose gender identity more or less matches their biological situation. In some ways, for me, these terms bring up more questions than they resolve, but I’m finding them to be useful.

And for a long time Eli talked about crying in great and fascinating detail. One thing that has deeply baffled him about taking t is that he no longer feels very capable of crying or at least not the way he used to.

I must admit that when I sat down to write this piece the first thing I did was go to youtube and look for Rosey Grier singing “It’s Alright To Cry” from Free To Be You And Me. Of course, what Eli was talking about had nothing to do with any stigma around men and crying, but rather, the possibility that being on testosterone has actually hormonally/physiologically affected his ability to cry.

Still, it was an excuse to revisit the mixed, convoluted, at times priceless messages the seventies tried to bring to the table about gender.

***

The next day Eli and I sat and talked alone on his porch. We talked a lot about effeminate masculinity and queerness as a deeply personal independent identity as opposed to an identity dependent upon one’s preferences, appearances and actions. He talked about two of his life-long role models aside from Tintin, gay men, friends of the family, who both wound up falling in love with and marrying women. He identifies with their lifestyles and perhaps even something about their gender expression.

I talked a bit about identifying as a straight man, or feeling like one, for the most part, and my attachment to identifying as queer even though I don’t always feel queer. Sometimes I feel straight and sometimes I feel queer. Most of the time I feel like a man, occasionally like a womanman.

After chatting, Eli showed me around downtown Keene and we went on a few adventures. When I left I felt no closer to making a decision about whether or not to start t, but I did feel a great respect for the decisions he’s made and the way he’s made them and I felt inspired to continue asking questions and looking to other people’s experiences for a greater wisdom.

Questions of the blog in the form of statements:

I’d love to hear about role models of all kinds. And I’m interested in hearing about fathers. Transmasculine people who feel a particular kinship — or lack of kinship — with their fathers or who feel their masculine identity has been particularly influenced by their relationship with father figures.

Marielle and Jules, Brooklyn, NY

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When I showed up with a video camera and a voice recorder Marielle and Jules were feeling little uncomfortable and shy, but when I pulled out my digital camera and started snapping pictures, it was too much and they both burst out laughing.

“You’re wondering why I have so many devices.”

They were still laughing too hard to say anything. I tried to explain that I was fairly new at all of them, and that I wanted to make sure at least one gadget was working.

They did their best to get serious…Ten seconds later my camera battery died. But not before I took a few photos of them sitting on their picnic blanket in Prospect Park, their bicycles lying around nearby.

It was a beautiful spring day and though it hadn’t been the easiest day for either of them, they were gracious enough to meet me and excited to be outside. They were also eager, though of course at times hesitant, to talk about their relationship to gender and transgenderness, and to talk about how their relationship with each other is affected by such things.

It was so refreshing to hear Jules and Marielle consider the ways they try to move through life together as a couple, and to acknowledge how much space transgenderness can take up in their relationship, but also what a blessing it is to have the awareness and ability to explore gender and find ways to be less confined by it.

***

It took a moment for us to start talking, and I had this fear that they would think I was ridiculous for putting so much energy into considering, talking about and writing about gender.

“I think about gender all the time,” Jules said. He identifies as transgender and as of yet hasn’t opted for t or surgery. “It feels like something I’m noticing and engaging with and ???ing with every day.”

“Did you say it’s something you’re diggling with?” I asked.

“I thought you said giggling with,” Marielle added.

“Dealing with,” Jules enunciated. But then he reconsidered. “I giggle with gender every day,” he said with a touch of regret. “I wish.”

He became more thoughtful, reconsidered again. “There are different kinds of genders and maleness. I’m not the butchest. I giggle. And I sew.”

We all giggled for a minute, but none of us had brought our sewing.

Marielle said that she felt there should be space for heterogeneous expressions and sensations of gender no matter how someone identifies.

“So you think about gender a lot too, in different ways than I do,” Jules said to her. “For me because I’m always thinking about t and my body. But I don’t want my experiences to drown out everyone else’s.”

He was looking partly at her and partly toward the meadow, then he turned to me.

“So it’s important that we make an effort to make sure Marielle gets to talk about her gender and how it changes and it’s fluid and it fluctuates.”

Marielle became animated again by the topic of fluctuation.

“I clearly identify as a woman,” she said, “but there are lots of things about me that are very masculine. And I like to feel like I get to express those pieces, too. I don’t identify as femme, I’m not super femme. I can be. Similiarly there should be space for parts of Jules that are energetically feminine  without that making Jules a woman.”

“Do you feel that your gender changes with each other?” I asked.

Jules looked at Marielle, not sure how to answer. “She is definitely one of the few people in the world who is really trying to make an effort to see me at all times and with me fluctuating and changing. Things change.”

Marielle agreed, maybe a little too readily. They talked for a few minutes and a little uncomfortably about Jules going back and forth and in and out of considering t and chest surgery.

“I just want to say,” Marielle said looking at Jules. “We do a good job of talking but it’s not perfect and it’s really scary for me and I feel like one week you’re saying something and the next it’s something else.

Jules said with a low key, almost matter of fact theatrical flourish, “My fluctuations aren’t so far fetched. It’s not like I say, I want to be a princess! I want to be a border collie!” He paused for a moment. “I think I’m gonna get chest surgery…It’s definitely… there’s not clear answers about it for either of us.”

***

Marielle and Jules have known each other since their first year of college in Western Mass but they didn’t begin dating until a few years after they graduated from school. Marielle went to Holyoke and Jules went to Hampshire, but they both chose these schools because of the 5-college dancing program.

They met for the first time at rehearsals for a performance in which they both had to wear outfits they had difficulty describing but felt compelled to describe.

“Someone was doing a project and one of the dancer’s dropped out and so I came in,” Jules said.

“Was it modern dance?” I asked.

“Yes. Rrrrrrnt.” Jules made a sound that I interpreted as frustration or annoyance. He was trying to come up with words for something.

“We had to wear these things on our heads,” Marielle said.

“They were like, flying bat nun hats. We looked like flying bat nuns,” Jules added.

“And we had to wear these Hockey pants with these…”

“We had to wear the flying bat nun thing with worker pants,” Jules said. He tried to move away from the memory of attire. “I walked in and Marielle was there with her friend. She had a good friend who was dancing in the performance, too, and they were totally a unit and laughing all the time and they had all these in jokes and I was like, ‘who were these cool kids that don’t want to talk to me.’ But I thought they were very dynamic and lovely…

“That’s when we met, but it wasn’t until we started dancing together the last two years of college that we…”

“Developed a thing,” Marielle offered.

“Yeah.”

I asked them if there was truly no thing when they first met. They both moderately agreed that there was no thing they could definitively put their finger on until their junior year, but that there was some deep appreciation in the mean time.

“I was definitely noticing Jules,” Marielle said. “But actually I think as a choreographer and a dancer. I’m sure there was something more going on there, but that’s what I could identify. I had a lot of admiration.”

There was a sweet moment of silence. Jules might have even blushed. Then I asked them how long they’d been dancing and they both said, “forever.”

A lot of what draws Jules and Marielle together and helps them relate to each other is their mutual love and shared language of movement and of dance.

“Being a dancer feels really central to my gender and how I live and survive in the world and create an embodiment that feels livable,” Jules said. “And I think the fact that we share that is a big part of how we can see each other and relate.”

“It’s part of how our bodies are connected,” Marielle said. ” And how our bodies have been connected. Dance being this place where at the same time, you’re fully embodied but you’re transcending your body.”

“There’s a faith in movement and in embodiment. Dance is a place where you get to believe in the truth and movement of bodies.”

“And the wisdom of bodies.”

“That’s a shared knowing. When we’ve been in dances together, we share a language of particular dances. We’ve been in dances before where I’ve looked at the tapes afterward which is hard to watch gender-wise, but aside from that pain, I’ll see us and we’re in crazy unison.”

I asked them if they generally had very similar taste in dance.

“No,” they both agreed and emphasized that they had very independent, individual tastes.

“So it’s not that you’re of one dance brain?” I said.

“No,” Marielle said. Then Jules added, “It’s just that we both have dance brains.”

***

We talked a little more about dance and physical embodiment. I was so curious about this aspect of their lives, apart and together, but had a hard time forming questions.

“For me part of being trans is forgetting my body,” I explained. “I try to find some kind of peace with my body but I do that by keeping a certain distance in many ways. But I’m athletic. I enjoy that kind of physicality.”

“Exactly!” Jules exclaimed. “So when you are exercising and you’re feeling really alive and embodied it’s this ultimate combination of totally losing your body and totally having it at the same time.

“Because I’m not like a super soccer player. I’m not a sportsman. Dance is the way it always happens to me. Not that there’s not poetry in sports. I find it all the time, that’s why I get distracted. ‘Wow, did you see that formation!’ I got an MFA in choreography. I’m kind of like a movement nerd.

“In dance, bodies, attire, that’s something you think about a lot especially in performance.”

I asked him about the attire part.

“I stopped wearing leotards a long time ago. Maybe if my body appeared the way I want it to I’d be all over the leotard. Leotards are hot!

“Now that I’m not in college anymore the dance projects are a little less painful. People are seeing me more and making a conscious decision to put me in their show. In college people were trying to put me in a chiffon blouse or something. Maybe  if I were on t I would feel more comfortable in a chiffon blouse.”

“In dance, people get to have masculine bodies and do feminine moves,” I said.

“Yeah,” Jules agreed, “but the queer narrative of female bodied people in dance gets really buried. There’s not a lot of people who look like me in contemporary modern dance today. So that’s a struggle.”

“But you get to have a different kind of masculinity as a dancer,” I said, once again fumbling a little, meaning it as a question about gender fluidity peculiar to dance.

“Yeah. It’s a pretty awesome thing,” Jules said. “For women, too. In dance there’s all kinds of options, freedom and possibility.”

***

Marielle grew up feeling very comfortable with herself as a girl, and also comfortable with her own fluctuations of femininity and masculinity.

“I refused to wear pants until I was twelve. Then I thought, this is ridiculous. It’s time to wear pants. I think that there are parts about being girl I’ve always felt really connected to.”

But she didn’t feel confined by being a girl.

“In terms of my play habits and games I felt I had exposure to a wide range of boy games and girl games and I had interest in both. I don’t really ever remember feeling uncomfortable about my gender. I wound up going to Holyoke which was an all women’s college and many of the women there felt like they came from a background of dealing with sexism. In my whole life I didn’t experience limitations related to being a girl.

“And for me I’m a person attracted to people on an individualized basis, based on me getting to know a person. In terms of my dating and friendship history I have dated as well as befriended people of all genders, all spectrum. Bio men, femme women, straight, queer, there’s a lot of room.”

“But she never dated a trans person –” Jules started.

Marielle finished the sentence. “Before Jules.”

They smiled at each other almost sheepishly.

“Actually Jules didn’t identify that way when we first met,” Marielle said.

“What has changed since then?” I asked.

“I used to go by a slightly different first name,” Jules said again with a sort of sheepish, charming smile.

“When you guys met, did you present still in a fairly butchish way or trannyish way?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” Jules said. But it was during the years between college, when Jules and Marielle lived in different states and before they started dating, that Jules began to identify more specifically as transgender and started to use male pronouns.

Marielle went through a lot of changes during that time as well.  She lived in San Francisco and worked at a super queer non profit and she began to identify herself as queer, as she put it, embrace a queer identity.

***

Though they had for the most part stayed in contact during their years in different cities, it took them some time after getting together for Marielle to get a clearer sense of where Jules was at with his gender identity.

“When we were not in as good touch and we were growing and changing and being adults in the world and learning about ourselves, Jules started using male pronouns and identifying more as trans. I wasn’t a part of that process so it was a hard thing for me to figure out and know, and I felt like there was this expectation that I was just supposed to know all of these things but I didn’t, so I felt embarrassed I had to ask.”

But all in all, they both agree that the time they took before becoming seriously involved was really important for both of them.

“We were both able to grow up in different ways and experience what we needed to experience,” Jules said. “But I knew she was really important to me. I didn’t know what that meant, but it never went away.”

I asked Marielle if the way she sees Jules has changed over time.

“Yeah,” she said, looking directly at Jules. “I think part of that seeing has to do with getting to know Jules more. Getting to know you and how you are and how you feel and breathe and want to be in the world.”

***

Jules and I tried to untangle  and put words to some of our hopes, fears and difficulties as transgender people.

“Part of being trans,” I said, “is that I don’t feel I need to be that literal about my body. But often other people do.”

“You don’t have to be, you get to choose,” Jules said, and then became almost solemn. “I think about taking t a lot and there’s this whole other factor which is how you appear, how people see you. That’s something I have to practice every day – practice letting go of. It has nothing to do with you, it has to do with other people, their issues, filters and lenses. I feel like t might afford me a little bit more space to be seen a little bit more the way I want to be seen. To show up in the world a little bit more in the way that I experience myself and I feel like there’s space in that. This comes up a lot. I don’t know how that would shift things for us.”

“I realize that when I’m across from someone they have to be able to imagine with me that I have pecs or it’s a no go,” I said. “I’m wondering how other people handle that across from each other.”

“That’s a big part of how people are drawn together and get to stay together. It’s all about imagining together, seeing each other,” Jules said.

“Have you always identified as transgender or butch?”

“No, I haven’t. You mean my whole life? No. I definitely was a super gender fluid kid all the way up until puberty started. And because of the patterns of my family and how I learned what my role was in the world, one of the roles I learned that I thought  was mine was to take care of everybody and make sure everyone was taken care of and everybody was okay and comfortable and so it became clear that the way they were gonna be okay and comfortable or one of the ways that was for me to be a girl and learn how to do it pretty well. So I did. I was pretty good at it.”

“Did it ever feel comfortable?”

There was a humorous pause and lilt in his voice. “I can’t recall it ever feeling comfortable.” He took another, longer pause before continuing. “But I didn’t know it felt different than what other people feel when they’re a girl. I didn’t know until I got to college and I heard people talking about their experience of their gender. I just thought, well, this is my lot in life.”

I asked Jules if he uses primarily male pronouns.

“What seems to happen when I’m in spaces where I know people are gonna be on my team I like to use male pronouns. But I get she’d a lot and there are old people in my life that I don’t know how to have a conversation with and don’t know if I want to and I like to go by my name a lot in lieu of pronouns which can get wordy but is really affirming.”

***

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“How long have you been tossing around the idea of  t and chest surgery?” I asked Jules.

“Chest surgery longer. Maybe six, seven years.”

“I get close to making the decision,” I said. “I start calling doctors and then I get freaked out and pull back and try to find a spiritual solution for a gender problem. I try to do that for a while until it feels impossible and then I start the process of calling doctors all over again. Cycles anyone?”

“Absolutely,” Jules agreed.

“Life is cycles, right? Everything,” Marielle added.

“Want to take out your tattoo?” Jules said, and Marielle shook her head.

“No,” she said. But she explained that she has a circle tattoo. “It’s all about that. Cycles, life, death, rebirth. We’re constantly in the process of remaking ourselves and changing and every moment is an opportunity to have a totally new and different expression of that.”

“I mean, surgery is huge,” Jules said. “Because there’s no going back. So, it’s crazy. Science fiction. Pregnancy is science fiction, too. It’s crazy what we do with our bodies and what our bodies are capable of. It’s beautiful. But yeah, I don’t know what to say. I’m familiar with those cycles.”

***

We touched on deeper societal issues. I said that I thought I would be able to handle the dissonance of how I see myself and the reality of my female body if people weren’t constantly in my face gendering me. Marielle got excited again. She’s ready for us all to make revolutionary changes in our ridiculously and impossibly binary-obsessed world.

Jules steered the conversation away from larger revolution and back to the realities of his daily struggles and those of other trans people. Then he moved back toward the larger picture but from a little bit of a different angle.

“We do what we need to do to live and survive, and if that means t and chest surgery, that’s what that means. I don’t think anyone should be made to feel ashamed or belittled for that decision.

“At the same time it’s interesting to me when I think about technology now. There have been trans people forever and this is the first time in history people are able to change their hormones. It’s interesting to me that right now humans are pushing up against something that’s holding in all humans. Sexism and gender stereotypes and homophopia and transphobia. People feel that all over the world. For some people it chafes more than others. People find the way that they have to resist and push and survive to make a space for themselves.”

I asked Jules if he thought he would consider surgery and t as much if he lived in a culture where people were less inclined to call him out as female. He feels fairly confident that if he had more visibility as a guy he would feel more comfortable as he is and be less likely to transition using hormones and surgery. He believes that our surroundings and how we are seen definitely affects our ability to thrive and survive in the world and therefore influences our decisions.

***

Marielle and Jules attended a wedding recently and it was surprisingly affirming and fun. But in general, Jules is finding that trying to hold his ground as a trans person who doesn’t always pass is tough.

“It gets tiring to be constantly having to hold the torch for yourself.

“Sure, call me a girl, okay.

“I think it’s in some of my most tired moments when I really just want to have a big beard and a really low voice.

“Some people feel they were born in the wrong body. I relate to parts of that. But I wasn’t always like ‘I am a man, I am a boy.’ People have all different kinds of experience and they’re all trans and gender queer and it’s hard to fill in all those spaces and to be someone who occupies a space that’s not enforcing the binary. It gets tiring. People are still so locked in that.

“In the media people can wrap their heads around people who really want to transition and pass. As uncomfortable as trans issues are for the general population, it’s more comfortable for people to be like ‘oh, okay, You have something wrong with you. We’ll fix it, we’ve got medicine now, and you’re all good, it’s great, you’re a man! Youre a woman!’ But that’s not everybody’s experience. It doesn’t speak to who we are as full humans. So there’s a whole lot of work that needs to be done. Making space for people to make the decisions that are truly for them.”

***

I think back to Marielle’s circle tattoo and her appreciation for fluid, flexible, even cyclical identities and identity struggles. I love that she is so in support of people exploring their masculine and feminine and other sides, no matter who they are and how they see themselves or how society sees them. And I am deeply comforted by her sense that transgressions or perhaps natural fluctuations of gender presentation and identification shouldn’t in any way undermine or threaten  how someone feels most comfortable identifying — male, female, something else entirely.

Speaking with Marielle and Jules reminded me of why I am doing this project in the first place. So often I wish I could simply stop talking, thinking, philosophizing about gender, that it could take up a slightly smaller space in my life (maybe just a little beach front property), be a pinch less bramble and bit more berry. But the sweetness is always there, fluctuating, cycling, ripening into the complex understandings and subtle questions that make us who we are and bring richness into our lives, and the lives of those around us.

***

questions of the blog:

I’d love to hear stories or thoughts from partners of trans guys and gender queer and/or transmasculine folks. What are some ways in which you become more aware of your own gender identity, expressions and experiences (whether you are or aren’t trans identified) by being across from someone who is trans? Do you think or feel differently about your own gender and sexuality?

And I’d love to hear stories from trans guys (and partners, too!) about when you feel most comfortable and alive and embodied physically and what that means for you.

Marcia, Brooklyn, NY

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Marcia is a tough, worldly, self-identified female, but she makes sure to distinguish herself from people who she considers to be female and feminine.

If we lived in a world where there were women who were men but they were still women, and all the other women were girls, then her gender identification might be simpler to describe. But, then again, maybe not.

We sat on a bench in Prospect Park and she shared some of her very eventful life history. We’d met a few days before, introduced by soccer dad Susan, and Marcia was interested in telling me about the butch-femme scene she came out into, “where you were either butch or femme or kai-kai.” Kai-kai being the word for people who didn’t make it into the butch-femme binary.

Marcia has a raspy voice and an intriguing manner. She’s salty and confident. Quick as a whip and always, in a way, two steps ahead of the game. She talks like someone who knows you’ll be interested in her adventuresome past and that you’ll follow her into the difficult, wondrous depths of it. But there is always lurking underneath her sureness, a desire to be seen and heard, for younger people to understand the importance of her generation, and her own singular rebellion.

***

Marcia grew up in Coney Island in the 40s and until, in her teens, she discovered other butch women, she saw herself as a boy.

As far back as she can remember her parents bought her boy’s clothing because at that time, “they didn’t have jeans for girls, and if my parents put me in girls’ clothes they would get shredded within minutes.”

She came out at fifteen and was subsequently kicked out of school. She got a day job and in the evenings started frequenting the bars of the West Village. She learned in a snap that if she wanted to date more feminine women, which she very much did, then she would have to formally take on the role of butch. She began slicking her hair back, wearing suits and ties, and going to the bars. She’d been arrested early on for being in queer establishments so she was literally a registered homosexual (registered with the police) – a card carrying butch.

Once she discovered butches, in many ways Marcia no longer identified with or saw herself as a guy. She felt she no longer needed to now that she had women like herself to identify with, though of course then, as always, the spectrum of gender presentation and identification varied among the butch and (other) transmasculine folks.

***

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Once she understood she was attracted to women, Marcia never looked back, never tried to hide being gay. She was proud of who she was and who she loved, and her parents did their best to support and accept her. Still, Marcia made sure at this point, her mid to late teens, that her parents didn’t see her with her hair slicked back and her tie on.

She enjoyed a lot of popularity at the bars and still saw herself as intensely masculine, but unlike some of the other butches and fellas in her circle, she didn’t pass or try to pass as a man in the rest of her daily life.

On one hand, she organically identified with this hypermasculinity. On the other hand, she came to question the intense binary of the butch/femme roles in the NY queer community she was in at that time and she wasn’t the kind of person to step down from a good challenge.

“I knew I liked the feminine girls, so I knew I had to be butch, and I’d always seen myself as a boy growing up. But at some point I had a real awakening.” In her late teens she became aware that she felt confined by and frustrated with the strictness of the roles and she wanted greater freedom to explore and experience more fluid gender and sexual dynamics.

“One day I came to the bar dressed in femme drag and asked a femme to dance. The next day I came as a butch and asked another butch to dance. That’s when the fists started flying.”

***

Though by her early 20s she became very comfortable with herself as a female outside the butch/femme dynamic, she still in some sense holds onto strict delineations between what she sees as masculine and feminine women or experienced and inexperienced people or, as it were, between the men and the boys.

We had a tense moment at the end of our interview when she insisted, “I see myself as a woman. But not the kind who’s a girl, you know, like you.”

I sat there in my sweater vest and artichoke tie (nearly all of my clothing is in storage right now as I’ve been, to make my life sound a little more romantic than it actually is, on tour. So I’ve worn the same outfit a lot lately and it consists of a a button-down shirt, my artichoke tie and navy blue sweater vest).

I grew hot with anger. “Remember how I identify as a guy? Remember I’m on my tranny tour. Um, that’s the whole reason I’m doing this interview.”

She stammered. Apologized. Mentioned something about my youth.

“I’m 38.”

She was running out of reasons for “girling” me and though it was painful I was too curious to drop the subject entirely.

“You said you’d read my blog before meeting me today.”

“Not all of it.”

“But it doesn’t take much, does it? You know I identify as male. So why would you say something like that?”

“Well, you know. I didn’t know. I thought you were thinking of making the changes.”

“Right. So in the mean time, if you were separating female-bodied folks into two categories, you would put me in the same category as a femme woman? And yourself in the category of butch?”

“Well, yes. I see you as very feminine.”

“So when you think of a femme woman, you think of someone who looks like me?”

“Not exactly.”

***

This made me think of the time I was coming of age in a fairly butch-femme NY community in the early ‘90s. I saw myself as a boy, often passed as male, but I was primarily interested in dating butches and FTMs. It was pretty hard to be on the (feminine) manly side and find a manly date at that time, and could also be a bit dangerous.

During that time I met a guy who was saving up to get surgery and start t. At that time in NY that was also pretty taboo and he was having a pretty hard time getting support.

I didn’t know yet that in San Francisco it was becoming quite common for people to get chest surgery and take t, but I soon discovered that San Francisco was that place for a guys like me who liked other butches and trannies — a faggot. I even read a queer magazine that had an article about dykes and ftm’s who identified as faggots. For this and several other reasons, I soon decided I would save up money and go to faggoty mecca (and then become straight). But at this point, I didn’t know any of these things.

Apparently, though, I did know how to get this NY dude to come to my apartment and then I even managed to seduce him. He was baffled by me, freaked out in that homophobic way. He didn’t understand what in the world he was doing with me, and what it was about me that made him want to get with me. So I simply told him I was femme. At the time I was genuinely confused as to how to refer to myself in terms of my gender and sexual identifications.

“Oh. Okay,” he said, shrugging, as if that explained everything. “You’re the strangest femme I ever met.”

***

One of the things about calling myself a butch that I haven’t felt comfortable with is that in my  mind it implies an intense, almost extreme, masculinity but not necessarily any identification with maleness.

But according to dictionary. com the word on the street is:

butch

slang

a.(of a girl or woman) having traits of personality, dress, behavior, or appearance usually associated with males.

b. (of a male) decidedly or exaggeratedly masculine in manner or appearance.

It’s so funny to me that they have separate definitions: “of a male” and “of a girl or woman.” And that a “butch male” would be considered to have an extra serving of masculinity while a “butch girl or woman” simply, in some way, resembles a man.

Does somebody want to break that down for me?

***

Spending time with Marcia was genuinely enjoyable and illuminating and reminded me that gender is a many splendored thing. The complexities of masculine and feminine identification, how we see ourselves and others,  are often separate and sometimes intertwined with our gender identities, and I think we can’t help at times comparing ourselves to each other.

Of course we all have our separate realities, our different lives and points of perspective. I can find it baffling to be around  butch identified women who totally enjoy and celebrate being female-bodied — who easily call themselves women and even girls and yet still, in some ways, think of themselves as dudes.

And I know there are many people who don’t understand where trans guys are coming from who, for lack of better words, abandon all ties with femaleness.

A friend of mine recently told his parents he was starting t and getting chest surgery and his father said, “Isn’t being a masculine homosexual woman enough?”

Enough for what? And for whom? Enough, I suppose, for those who feel themselves to be masculine homosexual women. But not for those who don’t.

***

I have to believe that Marcia is too quick on the uptake to have referred to me as a girl without meaning it as some kind of challenge, perhaps an affront to my masculinity or a way of calling out what she sees as my youth and inexperience.

Maybe she sees herself as more masculine than I am or sees me as undeserving somehow of butchness.

It makes me think about how men call men who don’t hold their butch flag high enough “girls”.

But rather than losing sleep over it, I feel it is important to remind myself that I don’t fall into a category that she’s familiar or comfortable with. And that I don’t really, when it comes down to it, often see myself as butch. (There are times when I feel masculine and times when I don’t).

The ways we use gendered language to create hierarchies is frustrating and sad — or, as it was so well put in the Breakfast Club, “demented and sad, but social.” And it seems to me that butch women and trans men have a unique and often strained relationship with femaleness and female femininity.

In my experience I know it has been hard to carve out my male identity without holding it against something I can grasp as femaleness. Especially as a kid I remember always trying to find ways to separate myself from girls and align myself with boys. I think masculine or male identification for a lot of us is the recipe for a certain amount of mysogyny, but then again, I think the way gender binaries are carved out in our society require that we spend a lot of time lamenting and reveling in and even reviling our murky differences.

I hope there are conversations that can go on between butches and trannies and those who fall outside of these identifications and still consider themselves to be gender queer – conversations about ways we can support and understand each other even if we don’t make the same choices or lead parallel lives. Intergenerational conversations, conversations about the ways we can hold on to our sense of ourselves without needing to undermine the validity or strength or beauty of the way others look at or see themselves.

***

Questions of the blog: In what circumstances do you feel most comfortable and most seen? If you could challenge some kind of binary or expectations people have of you, what would you challenge, or who would you ask to dance?

Cheddar and Gender

Until now I’ve blogged about cheese. I’ve been warned by quite a few friends now that people interested in reading my transigent blog probably don’t want to read about cheddar.

“Keep things simple,” one of my pals said when I mentioned that I was doing my first testing the waters interview while visiting a dairy farm. “Dude, you’ve gotta stay focused,” she said.

That was yesterday. Yesterday I went to a Bobolink farm in Vernon, NJ not far from the NY border. Bobolink is irrepressibly beautiful, biodynamic, home of some of my favorite cheeses and cheese makers, and there I met a calf named Leonardo.

He was described to me by a Bobolink staff member as “sweet, but a little bit dopey.” I found him to be riveting and even relevant to musings on transmasculinity, though I couldn’t yet say why.

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Last night when I got back to Brooklyn, panic set in. How does one create a unified blog when gender identity is like the proverbial snowflake. People experience gender so uniquely and there will never thankfully be enough terms. But this makes it difficult to name the blog, and to know how to address people respectfully. I practiced breathing as if it were something new, something one has to learn how to do. I asked myself, “how is it possible I can do this, or something approaching this — this ; gracefully and graciously explore identity in this way with people I know well and people I know less well and people I don’t know at all. How?”

And then this morning I woke up and remembered Leonardo. I could picture his eyes — were they hard or soft? Defiant or searching? His rusty, almost downy coat. His specific beauty and obvious intelligence. He looked at me long and hard with a peculiar, wary inquisitiveness.

*     *     *

Cheddar & Gender Road Trip started early yesterday morning. Kate and I left before 8  for the 10:00A.M. farm tour.

Kate had a date with a French TV documentarian who she met on Friday and who had asked her to come and do an interview on eating raw cheese. I offered to warm her up for the interview by asking her tranny tour related questions (of which there is no shortage). We were both excited and a little apprehensive.

The drive was beautiful except for the strip malls. At one point we missed a turn and wound up in Warwick, NY for a minute and it was a particularly lush and quaint little rural town that reminded Kate of her and her partner Nancy’s home in New Hampshire. We drove through the town because I thought perhaps the road we were on would wind back into New Jersey, but it didn’t. Once we were sure we were lost we called Nina White who lead us back the the Garden State and before we knew it we were at the farm.

As far as cheddar goes, Kate and I both agree that Bobolink has some of the best. It’s cave aged, smooth, complex while still being completely affable. The Whites make it in collaboration with an Amish family in Pennsylvania, so the cheddar is almost cosmopolitan while still being local fare for those in the tri-state area. I adore the cheddar, but I prefer the Frolic right now. If you want to read more about that, visit my cheese blog.

As far as gender, things were a little more complicated. Kate is a woman, designated female at birth. She’s tall and lanky with deep brown eyes and long dark hair. She identifies as a lesbian, but there’s nothing about her that screams ‘dyke’ and in her experience she doesn’t give off much of a queer vibe unless she’s in relationship to someone else. Though she doesn’t necessarily see herself as a femme, she says that others tend to id her that way. For years now she has exclusively dated masculine women or people who in some way identify as transgender.

“What is it like to feel visible as queer only  when you are with other people,” I asked her.

“It’s just frustrating when I’m trying to date.”

Kate’s partner Nancy, for example, was convinced for quite some time before they got together that Kate was straight.

“I think I know how to flirt,” Kate said, as if she is still thrown by the fact of her failure to communicate her interest one spring day, so many years ago. “I thought I was throwing the signals out there. But even after Nancy saw me in a play during pride week where I played the role of a butch lesbian, she still thought I was just a cool straight woman.”

“How did you meet?” I asked her.

“Sam.” Sam is a beagle, need I say more? He was once Nancy’s dog, but now he has both Nancy and Kate. “Sam is a total chick magnet,” Kate said. “That’s what Nancy said when we finally got together.”

Kate told me that Nancy, a tall, stately, terribly handsome butch in her late 40s, has acknowledged that she probably would have gone the route of taking t and getting surgery had it been more accessible when she was younger. “But now she’s really proud to be a butch woman.”

I was trying to get to the heart of a question more than an answer and I almost managed to truly put words to it yesterday in the car with Kate.

“When you’re with people who identify as butch or in some way transmasculine, do you still feel like you’re with a woman?”

“Not exactly,” Kate said. “No.” She searched for words and a few moments later explained that there is something energetically very male about some of the people that she’s dated, but that she loves being with people who are female-bodied. She likes to be with women who are more masculine than she is.

“I sometimes say I want to be the only one putting on makeup in the mirror,” she said, and then put on some makeup in the car to prepare for show time. She said she feels sad that so many people are taking hormones and mourns the loss of what she calls the “butch/femme dynamic.”

I’ve heard a lot of people say that they worry there will be no more butches left in the world. I doubt the world will ever rid itself of gender diversity or fluidity, certainly not of butch women. And I think there will always be a lot of people who were designated “female” at birth and who see themselves as male, or transgender, and who choose not to take hormones and/or get surgery. And while I often feel adoration for butch/femme dynamics, I also find that they can be frustratingly rigid.

Still, I have to agree that since t and surgery have become more and more accessible over the last fifteen or so years, a lot of folks have chosen to transition in that way, and it’s a big, recent change and one that I don’t think should be taken lightly.  I have a lot of concerns about t, etc, too, but in some ways I think it can give people more room for gender exploration and expression rather than less. A lot of people I know become comfortable enough to explore and experience themselves more fully, and often find it much easier to have closer, more fluid and less confining dynamics in their relationships.

*    *   *

Kate and I both agreed that there should be so many more words for kinds of genders. Sometimes I describe gender variations as a continuum, but I think it’s more of a sky full of stars.

I told her that I think of myself as male-bodied, but actually don’t really think of myself as masculine.

“How can you be male identified if you don’t see yourself as masculine,” she asked.

“I just see myself as a not very masculine man,” I told her.

What I didn’t tell her was that  a month or two ago I had the unfortunate experience of getting the Billy Joel song “Innocent Man” (in this song, in case you haven’t heard it, he basically sings “I am an innocent man” dramatically and repeatedly) stuck in my head, but with the lyrics, “I am an effeminate man.”

I identify as a straight man and a giant queer and a bit of a nebbish. But what makes someone butch, or masculine, or a man after all? I’m super athletic but don’t know how to start a camp fire or set up a tent. I hate Rush but I love Def Leppard. I thought “40 Year Old Virgin” was, like, the worst movie ever and recently got totally hooked on “Friday Night Lights”. It’s all so complicated.

*     *     *

During the farm tour Kate referred to me as “she” quite a few times, and though it’s still difficult for me to repeatedly ask to be referred to as “he,” I’ve been doing it a lot lately because it feels like a matter of survival.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just thought… I figured here if I called you ‘he’ people wouldn’t really get it.”

We stood in the rain outside of the little Bobolink cheese shop waiting for her interview to happen and I wondered why I couldn’t just suck it up. If I were comfortable enough with myself, my maleness, wouldn’t I be able to handle these one-syllable declarations without feeling constantly jarred and freaked out.

“I don’t really care if they get it,” I said, perhaps a little harshly, and then I realized that the people in my life who have difficulty calling me ‘he’ aren’t necessarily struggling with seeing me as a guy. Well, some are, but some are struggling with a desire to be in a world where there are more butches and fewer trannies, and some are simply trying to navigate complex social situations with people who have no context for understanding queerness.

In a way I imagine Kate was doing her best to look out for me and the people around me, be a bit of a peace maker, and I wonder now if people who date people who often pass or who sometimes create social disturbances merely by being their transmasculine selves, come down with some pretty specific life-skills. I wonder if women on the feminine side who date gender queer (etc) folks often find themselves acting almost as a translator or some kind of buffer between their lovers and the world around them.

*     *     *

A lot of queer women that I know struggle with their sudden queer-invisibility when their trans partners pass completely in the world as men, though a lot of women I know also find themselves surprised at how much of a relief it is.

Today I felt incredibly grateful that several of the women I’ve dated have happily and naturally used male pronouns with me. A few of my exes would check in with me about using the word “girlfriend” in situations when they wanted the queer visibility. I didn’t like it, but I understood, and often acquiesced.

I know that in some sense, gender is a big parade– the language, any hard facts other than biology can be broken down, and for me even the biology comes into question. I think Judith Butler says something like “gender is an attempt to copy something that has no original.”

Good cheese, on the other hand, doesn’t try to copy other cheeses, but, rather offers all  the unique wonders of its own location, circumstances, era. It’s flexible, resilient, offering the story of earth and sky, clover and other greenery.

I wish somehow, sometimes, that we had words for each other that were different, generous, more qualitative than quantitative. Moving away from expectations and assumptions and perhaps drenched in a certain, quizzical wonder.

As I said before, I woke up this morning thinking of Leonardo the calf. I think he’s a little sly, though I imagine Taylor had her reasons when she called him dopey. Perhaps he’s dopey and sly. He’s certainly handsome and pretty. Maybe he’s a million things. It must be said that he’s a calf, I suppose, and I realized when I found myself thinking about him this morning that he reminded me of another calf that grew up into one of our lazier and fantastical gender outlaws. There is nothing like the  story of Ferdinand the Bull, sort of the Billy Elliot of bulls, a dreamer, not a fighter. A dawdler, a dear, a flower-sniffing giant.

I think I can safely say that when it comes to my own gender, to the way I handle being a transgender person in a binary-obsessed world, sometimes I find myself dreaming, sometimes I find myself fighting, I certainly stop and admire the flowers and when I need a little sustenance, nibble on some cheese.