That Transsexual Guy
Oliver Leon tackles the issues and everyday life of transition and trans* rights.
Who gets remembered? Who gets days off to witness, mourn and acknowledge the pain of death? And who isn’t remembered? Who’s left to rot in silence?
I ask these questions because the Transgender Day of Remembrance was yesterday, Nov. 20. A vigil was held at 6:00 p.m. at the Y-intersection on the McGill campus, organized by Queer McGill’s Trans* Working Group. The event provokes many questions about violence.
Why don’t we pay attention to the murdered incarcerated people, HIV-positive people, sex workers, poor people, disabled folks, trans women, and people of colour? What about those who overdose? Those who commit suicide?
We cannot only pay attention to gender-creative children—we must also remember to help out those who are not safe when stepping into a bathroom, or who get kicked out of restaurants simply because cisgender people are uncomfortable. Our identities intersect in many ways and bar access to services, communities, and help that are made for the privileged.
The Trans* Working Group writes on the vigil’s event page, “The Transgender Day of Remembrance was set aside to memorialize those who were killed due to anti-transgender hatred or prejudice.
“The event is held in November to honor Rita Hester, whose murder on Nov. 28, 1998 kicked off the ‘Remembering Our Dead’ web project and a San Francisco candlelight vigil in 1999. Rita Hester’s murder—like most anti-transgender murder cases—has yet to be solved.”
Where can we direct our efforts so that the high numbers of trans* deaths are reduced?
I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I think that each individual and each community could and should spend time thinking about how they can be allies to the transsexual, transgender, non-binary, and gender-non conforming folks in their lives. Then you should do what you can.
Can we create a world where transphobia does not exist?
I want to dissect a remark that I often get from people: “I didn’t realize that you were trans” or “I couldn’t tell!”
This is not a compliment—it’s an insult. It’s tantamount to saying, “I couldn’t tell you were disabled!” You are not expected to be able to immediately realize, merely by looking, that someone is trans or disabled, unless that person wants you to or can’t hide it (i.e., being in a wheelchair). That’s merely a part of the person’s everyday life. The commenter here is attempting and failing to compliment the person on “passing” as cisgender (non-trans) or able-bodied (not-disabled).
Now to my knowledge, in circles that aren’t queer, passing is constructed as, for example, female-identified person trying to be read as female. So a male-to-female transsexual who successfully passes as female… gets an A+? Nah, it means that she can navigate bathrooms safely and without anyone yelling, “There’s a man in a dress in the woman’s bathroom!” However, calling someone a man in a dress is assuming a lot about a person’s gender, don’t you think?
I find that the term “passing” implies a lot about failure. So I like to use the term in a different way. On any given day, I can pass for a cisgender man—something I am not—unless I out myself. There is an option for failure there—right, I can’t say I enjoy the term per se—that I don’t pass as a cisgender man and am then perceived as a transsexual man. My hard-of-hearing friend can pass as a fully hearing person—as someone she is not—unless she tells people. When she outs herself as a hard-of-hearing person, then she fails at having full hearing.
This language sucks. It’s disempowering. I don’t think that the burden should be placed on the individual, but on the society. Others cannot hide their queerness, transgressive qualities, and/or disabilities. Having the choice to pass is a privilege. Do you compliment someone for having a privilege? No.
As Julia Serano writes in her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, “The crux of the problem is that the words ‘pass’ and ‘passing’ are active verbs. So when we say that a transsexual is ‘passing,’ it gives the false impression that they are the only active participant in this scenario (i.e, the transsexual is working hard to achieve a certain gendered appearance and everyone else is passively being duped or not duped by the transsexual’s ‘performance’). However, I would argue that the reverse is true: The public is the primary participant by virtue of their incessant need to gender every person they see as either female or male.”*
While I’ve gotten the comment, “You pass really well as a man,” that’s not my goal. I am a man regardless of what anyone says; I don’t need that kind of validation from a cisgender person. I do want to be perceived as male so in that case, the cisgender person just has to respect my pronouns. And if I am not macho enough for you, that’s just too fucking bad. A disabled person is not necessarily disabled quite so much as society is incredibly inaccessible to people with various abilities and access needs. I’m sure a lot of folks get frustrated with feeling like they’d rather stay home than traverse the perils of the outside world, that have narrow doorways, quick talkers, and tons of stairs.
So when you turn a corner and are introduced to someone who is different from you, in their gender, sexuality, disability or simply their hair colour, don’t say a useless platitude. Nod thoughtfully, store away your questions and Google them. Smile and say that you’re happy to meet them and learn what you can from what they share with you.
*Julia Serano. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, Seal Press, 2007.
As of two weeks ago, I have officially been on testosterone for one year.
I am not terribly interested in parties so let’s consider this my public celebration. Hurrah! Oliver is one year on T! Hip hip hooray!
It’s very exciting. I’m a big boy now! I jest—one doesn’t need to be on hormones in order to qualify for manhood.
Last Saturday, I shaved my face in a rush to make it easier to get over the border. I haven’t changed my legal name yet—expensive shit—and subsequently my gender marker, so I figured I ought to make a vague attempt at looking like a girl-ish creature. I mostly look like my picture, ‘cause it’s not like I suddenly have a new face entirely.
I stood in my friend’s bathroom, in my binder (a shirt that compresses my chest), and we marveled at my facial hair, which of course, I had none of this time last year. Off came the long hairs under my chin. I trimmed my sideburns. I’m not that hairy yet.
As I stood there in my binder, I admired the abdominal hair growing around my navel.
My voice is much deeper, although I don’t think it has changed much after the six month mark—by the by, I waved to the border guards and didn’t speak. We had no problems. I am told that I have a nice baritone. I eat as much as I ever have, as fast metabolisms run in my family.
My face is rougher and has more distinct edges. I am slightly easier to move to anger or frustration, but not by much. I am calmer, in that I am more settled in myself. My anxiety only pops up when I drink badly-made coffee.
I will be having top surgery—the double mastectomy that breast cancer survivors get—within the next six months or so. As a gentle reminder or rather, as my editors gently remind me, I shall not be writing for The Link during my recuperation period. That will be one to three weeks.
I might as well answer The Big One so we can just get that out of the way here: I don’t know if I want The Surgery. Yeah, you heard me. I don’t know if I want a dick. The surgeries involve permanently altering your genitalia forever! That’s scary.
What if my urethra is messed up and then I can’t pee properly? Or what if my ability to orgasm is somehow affected?
These are bloody big life decisions. I’m going to take my time deciding. So there. Let’s not argue about what makes a man because basically, if you don’t think the answer is “self-identifying as one!”, we won’t be very good friends.
Oh also, I think my feet have gotten bigger?! My hands definitely have. And my neck is thicker. Bodies are strange, as I tell my friends.
Thanks for hanging out with my through this weird and wonderful journey, y’all. Special thanks to my brilliant, supportive, incredible friends who know exactly when to high-five me when I say “I am one whole year on T!”
Your compassion and enthusiasm have really made my arrival a warm welcome home.
Last week, The Link published an article on the annual Rocky Horror Picture Show Halloween Ball (“Welcome to Transsexual Transylvania” [Vol. 33, Iss. 11]) The article used the word ‘tr*nny’ to describe the back-up dancers in the performance that accompanied the film. This is a slur that has historically been used against transsexual women.
Opinions Editor Hilary Sinclair had emailed me about this subject the night before the paper came out. I got to read writer Elysha del Giusto-Enos’ original lead, which used to t-word. When I told them that it was offensive, they wrote a new lead that didn’t use it.
I think that she could have picked a different introductory sentence for her Rocky Horror article, but after being told by Hilary that I had solved an office debate about the word, I had vainly hoped that the article would not use the slur at all.
Hilary and I spoke a few days later and she acknowledged that she wasn’t sure how The Link would deal with other slurs if an interviewee used hurtful, intolerant language towards other groups.
While the word is used, to my understanding, with relative glee in Rocky Horror, I also cannot recall any transsexual characters. Actor Tim Curry plays Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the film. To my knowledge, Tim Curry is not a transsexual. In the movie, he plays a self-identified “sweet transvestite.”
Is it okay for a non-transsexual actor playing a transvestite to speak a slur that is still being reclaimed by some (but not all) trans* people? I am not sure how to answer this one.
However, Kate Bornstein, gender theorist and performer, has written in her blog, “No matter what ideas you might have about transsexuals or drag queens, if you were M headed toward F in any fashion at all, you moved into, through, up and out of the drag queen community.
“So there was always a bond between the drag queens and the MTF transsexuals in Sydney. The bond was so strong, they invented a name for the identity they shared: tranny. It was a name that said family.
“Tranny began as a uniting term amongst ourselves. Of course it’s going to be picked up and used as a denigrating term by mean people in the world. But even if we manage to get them to stop saying tranny like a thrown rock, mean people will come up with another word to wound us with. So, let’s get back to using tranny as a uniting term amongst ourselves.
“It’s our first own language word for ourselves that has no medical-legacy. Even if (like gay) hate-filled people try to make tranny into a bad word, our most positive response is to own the word—a word invented by the queerest of the queer of their day. We have the opportunity to re-create tranny as a positive in the world.”
There is a part of me who wants to agree with Bornstein, but there is also an uncomfortable little worm in me that says, ‘Hey, wait, I thought you hated that word!’ I am not sure how to resolve those two parts of me but at the same time, I also feel like I might have bigger things to worry about than a word—like the end of semester!
I first bumped into Shannon Kearns on Twitter.
His handle, @anarchistrev, caught my eye. There were Christian anarchists in the world?! And they were trans, too? I was curious as to how those identities intersected, and the reverend kindly agreed to an interview.
That Transsexual Guy: This might be a chicken or the egg question but, what do you think came first—your faith or knowledge of your gender identity?
Shannon Kearns: My faith definitely came first, if only by virtue of the family that I grew up in. I didn’t really become aware of gender as a concept until I hit puberty and by that time my faith was already well ingrained. My gender discomfort and my discomfort with the faith of my childhood seemed to grow together, though.
If this isn’t too personal a question, how did you know you were called to God’s service? How old were you?
I was probably in junior high when I began to get a sense that I was called to be in ministry. I don’t know if I could have articulated exactly what I was called to, but I felt this sense that I needed to not only be a part of the church, but also that I should be a part of changing the church.
I was very concerned with how shallow the faith I was being taught seemed. It seemed like God was supposed to make everything perfect if only you believed properly and hard enough and that just didn’t match up to the experience I was having.
I wanted to raise the questions I felt no one else was asking. That calling to be a bit of an antagonist in the church has remained.
It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I finally had language for my gender discomfort. By that time I had already deconstructed my faith from childhood and embraced a faith that was much more inclusive and concentrated less on personal salvation and more on saving society.
But newfound faith was very intellectual and I missed the deep emotion I had as a faithful child. It was my transition that gave me back the gift of an emotional faith.
Transitioning allowed me to embrace my body again—as I had pretty much been trying to ignore it completely ever since puberty. And in learning to embrace myself as a bodied person, I began to embrace my faith as something that actually cares very deeply about bodies.
It’s a faith that considers bodies important and holy. It’s a faith that encourages rituals that are all about bodies. That emphasis on being bodily allowed me to embrace a faith that was both intellectual and emotional.
So you’re a Christian anarchist. What does that mean to you?
For me, Christian anarchy is about creating new ways of community and living in the shadow of the Empire. Which means a focus on community, on the local, on cooperation. It’s a rejection of things that seek to divide people, like American political parties, and an attempt to cooperate together to make sure that everyone has the things they need.
I’m dedicated to non-violent resistance and trying to follow in the way of Jesus. I think of Christian anarchy as the willingness to do the hard work of being in community with people and with getting my hands dirty to do the work of justice. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s a taste of what it means to me.
You co-founded and co-direct Camp Osiris. From what I read on the site, it’s a bit of a radical Bible camp for youth with a distinctly queer lens. Can you tell The Link’s readers how the camp started and what it’s about?
Camp Osiris started two years ago. Caidin Riley, the co-founder and co-director, and I had a desire to start a camp for queer young adults and adults who wanted to talk about the intersections between their sexuality and/or gender identity and their Christianity.
We wanted to create a space where people could talk about their struggles, meet other queer and/or trans* Christians, and where they could talk about what it means to be activists where they live.
Caidin and I had both been a part of other queer youth camps and we realized that two things were missing: There weren’t any camps for young adults and adults (most camps were for teenagers) and while they did a great job creating safe spaces, they didn’t equip people to go back home and make a change where they were living.
We wanted to create a camp that would do those things. Camp Osiris gives people new ways to read the Bible. We look for the texts that are revolutionary for queer and/or trans* people. We want to give people the tools to reclaim their faith and to make it their own.
Then we talk about the things in our own communities that we’d like to change and work on making sure that they have the resources they need to work on those changes in their home communities.
We stay in touch with campers year round, connect them to people who live near them, and offer support and community. It’s been a powerful experience.
We’ve got three camps coming up in 2013. For more information you can check out camposiris.com.
You’re also trying to start The House of Transfiguration, a social justice-oriented church in Minneapolis. How is that going?
House of the Transfiguration is really just beginning. I’m hoping that we’ll have a small “launch” group meeting starting in January with the hope of starting public worship services in the Fall of 2013. It’s a slow process but one I am really excited about.
We’re going to be a North American Old Catholic Church parish. The NAOCC is an independent Catholic denomination that ordains women, queer and/or trans* people, divorced folks, and married people.
They care deeply about social justice and it’s through them that I am being ordained. I am excited to start an Old Catholic parish here in Minneapolis as there aren’t any communities like it.
I’m really interested in what happens when you fuse ancient ritual with radical practice, when you mix chant music with a nice drum beat, when you have mass with inclusive language, and when the community can hold the best of the ancient with a view toward the future.
In your vision for a better future, what would your ideal church look like? Would we need churches or places of worship?
My ideal church would be a community dedicated to one another and to the community in which they live. They would be focused on worship, creating ritual, and changing the world. They would eat together and sing together and protest together.
I see the church as a base community for resistance: It’s the group that strengthens the people doing the work of justice in the world. It’s the group that provides rituals that give life meaning and depth, the group that supports one another and challenges one another.
I think Christians will always need to be in community. We need the encouragement (and the occasional kick in the ass) to work for the good of other people.
It can be really easy to concentrate on personal needs and to forget about the community. Churches, when they are at their best, are encouraging people to look outside of themselves and to live for the benefit of community.
Is there value in doubting faith?
Absolutely. And maybe I just say that because I can’t imagine having a faith without doubting. I know that my times of doubt; the times when I have had to completely deconstruct the things that I believe, those times have made my faith so much stronger.
Even the times when I have tried or wanted to walk away from faith completely have, in the end, managed to strengthen my belief.
I think the key thing, for me, has been to try to eliminate shame when struggling with doubt. Instead I try to see it as a natural part of the process of growing and learning and I don’t beat myself up over it.
Do you have tips for queer and trans* folks struggling with their faith?
I think the biggest thing I would want to say is that you are not alone. There are a lot of deeply faithful queer and/or trans* folks out there. We are working hard for inclusion in churches and starting new communities.
If you are struggling with your faith, know that that is okay. You can take your time figuring things out. If you need to step away from faith for a while in order to gain perspective, that is okay, too.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If you want to get in touch with me you can send me an email email@example.com or follow me on Twitter: @anarchistrev. To read more about my thoughts on Christian anarchism, trans* theology, and churchy stuff check out anarchistreverend.com.