That Transsexual Guy
Oliver Leon tackles the issues and everyday life of transition and trans* rights.
To give you an idea as to how intense the TRANSforming Feminism conference in Peterborough, ON, two weekends ago was, I’ll share an anecdote with you.
On the bus ride home, I sat with a fellow conference-goer. She was telling me about her teaching experiences in Thailand. She told me that Thai folks have the ability to see more than two genders. I stared at her, then out the window at the passing trees for several moments before beginning to sob.
We had spent the weekend talking about gender, access to services, our bodies and how to heal in an oppressive society. It was a heavy weekend.
The conference pamphlet describes the hosts, The Collective for Gender and Social Justice, as “a collective of trans and cis folks working in solidarity with trans people and communities; queers, 2-spirits and polysexuals; Indigenous peoples, people of colour and settlers; anarchists, agitators and anti-oppression community organizers working towards radical trans inclusion, community accountability and transfeminist praxis: the destruction of transphobia, cis-sexism and trans-misogyny.”
“The first [conference] took place in 2008,” said Ki, a public educator and poet and one of the main organizers. “It was clear then that it was the first time (or one of the first times) something like this had happened in southern/south-eastern Ontario and the turnout was huge, people were really excited and I guess we’ve just been trying to keep up the momentum.”
“This year to have people coming not only from Toronto and Ottawa, but a relatively large contingent from Montreal, and folks flying in from Atlantic ‘Canada’ I think really goes to show, me, anyway, how important and rare these spaces are.”
The entire conference was pay-what-you-can, with the full weekend priced at $30.
“Ultimately, it’s an accessibility measure,” said Ki.
“We just really didn’t want to impose any extra financial barriers to attending the conference, we hoped people would be coming from other cities, regions, etc., and that would already be an expense for people—it’s really exciting that we are able to subsidized travel for folks who requested it.”
While Peterborough, or Nogojiwanong, its Ojibway name, seems very local for a conference like this, Givogue says that the midsize municipality has the same need for trans support as any other.
“In the end, I feel that a) Nogojiwanong is a gathering space,” said Givogue, who is an anarcha-Indigenous community organizer. “And rad folks are here organizing, b) Peterborough is like any other community in that there needs to be trans spaces, services, etc. and c) community partnerships between trans and trans inclusivity-working groups.”
Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, spoke well on the Friday evening. Athens Boys Choir performed handsomely on the Saturday night. There were workshops with intriguing titles such as Modifying and Healing Our Trans Bodies: Working With/Out Institutions and a Panel Discussion on Trans Access in Women’s SpacesAddressing Abuse in our Relationships and our Communities.
Both organizers I spoke to expressed an interest in self-care workshops, emotional responsibility and figuring out how to leave space for flexibility.
While I certainly don’t mind educating folks about what “real” masculinity is by sobbing on a Greyhound bus, I also think it is a good idea to create a space for recovery when the workshops do get emotional.
Transsexual, transgender, and gender-non conforming folks often don’t have safer, accountable spaces to discuss personal experiences surrounding oppression, suppression, and repression. For me, this is why the TRANSforming Feminism conference is profoundly important.
Update: This article originally stated that the TRANSforming Feminism conference was last weekend. In fact, the conference was held Sep. 28–Sep. 30. The story has been updated to reflect the correct information. The Link regrets the error.
Trans people are often seen as liars and tricksters. An example of this would be the idea that comes up every time a bill (C-389, C-279) proposes to recognize gender identity and gender expression as a recognized group under Canada’s Criminal Code, thereby protecting transsexual, transgender and gender-variant people a little better from hate crimes.
Conservative MP Rob Anders’s petition against the bill states, “[It] is the duty of the House of Commons to protect and safeguard our children from any exposure and harm that will come from giving a man access to women’s public washroom facilities.”
Do politicians really think that a man will dress up as a woman to gain access to women’s bathrooms and assault someone? Think about that. If a man wants to assault someone, is he really going to go through the trouble of dressing up? Is he going to let a door stop him? No. He will push past the door.
Transsexual, transgender and gender-variant people walk into bathrooms for certain reasons: to go pee, to fix their hair, to clean a stain off their shirt. Transgender advocate, Jan Buterman, told the CBC, “The suggestion that this is somehow some […] conspiracy of trans people to sneak into bathrooms deliberately to harm people—it’s ludicrous.”
There are only two instances that jump to mind when all trans people lie:
First –when they are forced to interact with others as their gender assigned at birth.
Every time I cross the border, I show my passport. It has my birth name and gender assigned at birth on it (F). Unfortunately, while my birth name is my legal name, it is not my true name. I have not had problems with border guards (knock on wood). My mom is usually the one driving so when the guard looks at my freshly-shaved face, I wave from the passenger seat and don’t speak. We pass through without harassment. My deepened voice would confuse the border guard and then I would have to engage an impromptu Trans 101 to explain my appearance.
Second –when trans* people need to look and act heteronormatively, that is to be perceived as straight, in order to get access to hormones and trans-specific psychiatric services. I met a psychiatrist once who expected me to be assertive and macho. I was having trouble communicating to my parents that I needed them to call me by my name. Upon learning that I was a person with activist inclinations, the psychiatrist told me, “write your own manifesto!” He wanted me to move out of my house and potentially cut off my parents. I was thankful that I wasn’t wearing my pink shirt or lavender nail polish at the time (I think I might have had chipped black).
I left his office, feeling ashamed to be a tender-hearted young man. I was also irked that he was trying to force me to be someone that I am not.
I am a terrible liar. I’ve heard many stories from transsexual folks who lie to their psychiatrist saying, “Oh yes, I’ve always felt this way” or “Yes, I am straight” etc. You tell them what they want to hear to get what you need. Lying does leave a bad taste in the mouth though.
In my last semester at Dawson College, being in an androgynous in-between state got to be too much.
I came out to select classmates and professors as Oliver. I used the men’s bathroom sometimes.
It was dangerous for a few reasons. I wasn’t always perceived as male. I could’ve run into a classmate who only knew me by my birth name, who only knew me as female.
At the same time, I was regularly asked, “Sir, do you realize you’re in the women’s bathroom?” Someone of any gender could have called security to ask why I was in their bathroom.
There is one gender-neutral bathroom in Dawson College. It is specifically for students with disabilities. You need a code to get in.
I asked a friend to come with me to the Student Access Ability centre to get the code. With my permission, they outed me to the secretary, who demanded to know why I, as an able-bodied person, wanted to use this bathroom—probably rightly so.
I blushed and felt humiliated. I was given the code. I used the bathroom for the rest of the semester, despite the fact that most of my classes were on the fourth floor and the bathroom was on the main floor. I never had a problem from other students.
It was inappropriate for me to be using a bathroom utilized by students with disabilities, but there was nowhere else for me to go.
Coming out to my classmates was something I was not ready for at the time (nor should I feel obligated to). Not coming out meant being the subject of stares, double-takes and awkward questions every time I went to the women’s bathrooms. Thankfully, I experienced no violence.
Concordia has around 100, often unmarked, gender-neutral bathrooms that are frequently inaccessible to students with disabilities. Some are locked, staff-only or under renovation.
At the beginning of last summer, a volunteer from the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy and I found every single gender-neutral bathroom on the downtown campus.
2110 has that list, available upon request. It is also available online at centre2110.org under the heading “Trans Health Advocacy” in the Campaigns and Projects section. The centre is currently looking for someone to make the list more accessible and user-friendly.
“My dream would be to have an interactive map where the gender-neutral bathrooms are,” said the 2110 Centre’s Trans Health Advocacy and Peer Support Coordinator Gabrielle Bouchard. “Making the ones on the list available and easy to recognize would be the first step, because I don’t know if the ones already there are truly available.”
The last articles in The Link specifically about gender-neutral bathrooms date back to 2010. Former Editor-in-Chief Laura Beeston wrote about “an anonymous guerilla sign maker” who put up handmade gender-neutralizing signs on twelve single-stall bathrooms.
The Link ’s current Copy Editor, Alex Manley, wrote an editorial on Oct. 26, 2010, which reminded Concordia administration that since 2005, Queer Concordia has been calling for gender-neutral bathrooms.
On Feb. 15, 2012, ConU spokesperson Chris Mota announced that students could have their preferred names on all university records—except their transcripts.
As of this fall, transsexual, transgender and gender-variant students are not being outed by their professors when being called at attendance, or when required to show their ID cards to authority figures.
As someone who has had to deal with accidental outing, and having to email or speak to professors about preferred names and pronouns, this is a huge relief.
The university has done well.
However, not having gender-neutral bathrooms continues to add to an unsafe campus for transsexual, transgender and gender-variant students.
As Manley wrote, “Bathrooms have a long history of being sites of struggles against discrimination, as racial minorities, the disabled and women have historically been kept out of certain spaces under an exclusionary rationale.”
This is not a new issue.
The university promised that the bathrooms with gender-neutral signage would be ready by fall 2008.
Where are these friendlier bathrooms?
I must have been six or seven when I tried to tell the girl across the street that I was different from her. She didn’t understand. Nor did I. All I knew was the pervading sense of loneliness I felt when the boys in the neighborhood refused to play rough when we played street hockey—even though I was often the only one brave enough to rescue our ball from the cranky old man’s lawn.
I didn’t really understand skip rope. I didn’t see the appeal of analyzing crushes (especially at such a young age) when I could be pretending to be a Power Ranger or a dinosaur. I hung out with other squawky, awkward, knobby-kneed young boys. We built snow forts with zeal.
I was always ashamed and unhappy when changing for gym in the girls’ rooms. To fit in, I learned to undress slowly and to procrastinate by chatting to pass as “normal,” instead of zipping out of there as fast as I could.
I remember having crushes on boys. I had a crush on my sixth-grade teacher, too, who was a snarky lady. She taught me about the existence of sarcasm. Now, I am bashful when anybody flirts with me—but that’s cute, right?
When I was 12, my mom had to pick up my brother Matt from his friend’s house. The father looked at me and said, “Oh, are you Matt’s brother?” I felt happy and guilty and ashamed all at the same time. I said, “No, I am his sister.” The father looked horribly awkward and apologized. I wanted to cry, but didn’t understand why.
In grades 10 and 11, it came to the attention of two boys that I was a rather masculine-looking girl, with my baggy clothes and heavy jawline.
“Why do you look like a boy?” they’d ask.
I remember my French teacher telling me to ignore them.
At one point, a friend of mine tried to get me into women’s clothing. I think I enjoyed the act of shopping, because I do remember a certain joy—perhaps I’d become an acceptable member of society at last?
While I did get many compliments and discovered a liking for vests, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t care that my girl friends were pleased to see that I could wear a bra and jeans that showed off my ass (actually, that’s a transferable skill—I can still wear jeans like that when I want to!). I quickly went back to band t-shirts.
When prom came and I finally put on my dress, objectively, I knew I looked good. It was a long bullet grey dress that matched my eyes. I hated it. If you look at my prom pictures, you can tell. I went to prom with a dear kindergarten friend, who later came out as gay. For whatever reason, our actual graduation ceremony was in October. Many of us had moved on to college.
I had cut my hair short. Not quite a boy’s haircut—you might’ve classified it as dykey. It made me look androgynous enough that I’m certain strangers peering at the photograph in my dad’s house will just assume that Oliver had an androgynous phase in high school before becoming a dandy (also thereby saving my dad the explanation of his transsexual son, if he doesn’t really feel like explaining my history to a stranger).
When I started coming out to former high school friends, many expressed relief that I had found what I was looking for. They made comments like, “Oh that sounds like something you would do!” or, “I think I always kind of knew,” and, “Finally!”
I guess that I could give you a fairy-tale ending. Boy goes off to university, makes good friends, meets some gorgeous person to ride off into the sunset with… but the story’s not over yet! Until next week, then.
I had the privilege this week of interviewing my beautiful friend Jen, of We Happy Trans Internet fame. We met online, where we managed to discuss Kant and flirt for all the world to see. She kindly agreed to answer my questions.
Oliver Leon: You and I met on Twitter’s #transchat hashtag. I know you help out regularly with that—could you please share with The Link’s readers what that is?
Jen: There were a few of us, and I think you were part of the original cabal, who repeatedly found ourselves chatting on weekend mornings about various trans topics on Twitter. It got to the point where you’d only have room for a winking smile if you wanted to reply to all the people on a given thread.
Avory Faucette, who works at the National Center for Transgender Equality and is @queeractivist on Twitter, finally stepped forward and offered #transchat as a way for us to tag the conversation. It grew. A lot. Quickly.
It’s now a monthly event, formally a two-hour moderated discussion on a specific issue, such as housing, race, sex, family, etc. Informally, the hashtag functions as an effective way to communicate with trans population on Twitter.
You created this excellent website called We Happy Trans. Wanna tell these folks what that is?
It would be my pleasure! Simply put, it’s a place for sharing positive trans experiences. The majority of the content on the site is from the 7 Question Project, which asks trans people to submit their responses, in writing or on a video, to a set of questions designed to frame experience positively, such as, “Who has been most supportive of your transition?” or “What are you doing to make the changes you’d like to see in the world?”
How did the site come about?
The full story stems from the tragic narratives I encountered before transition and how my own experiences diverged from them. In short, though, I was complaining on Twitter that there weren’t any positive stories about trans people online. A friend challenged me to do something about it. So I did.
The site as it is now is really a collaborative effort, with input from contributor Noah Alvarez, design and maintenance by Kai, and all the many amazing trans people sharing their stories with us. I’m in continual awe of the fierce intelligence, beauty and drive of the trans community.
What’s your favourite thing about being out as trans?
I don’t speak Canadian, but assume you mean “favorite”? For me, transition was like taking off a heavy backpack, one I’d been wearing every waking, working, bathing and dreaming hour for 30 years. The lightness was nearly inconceivable. On a public level, being out as trans makes the simple fact of my existence a political act. My choice becomes a challenge to everyone who witnesses it, a potential call to greater authenticity. For me, that’s a gift to be embraced.
And yes, I do see my transition as a choice. The impulses that led to it certainly weren’t, but availing myself of the opportunities afforded me by my context and particular privileges is a choice, one I’m grateful to have. I cannot predict how my gender variance would have manifested in a different time or culture, or had I been a different race, class, body type, etc.
It’s precisely because of such privilege that it’s important for people like me to remain visibly trans, to use what power we’ve been given to shift people’s perceptions of trans people and to stand up for those in our community who don’t have equal access to resources.
What sort of lovely future vision do you have for the trans* community?
If it’s up to me, one with a lot more purple. More broadly though, trans people will soon be as visible, and as an integrated part of global culture, as gay people are now swiftly becoming. It is inevitable.
More prophetically, I can’t help but contemplate how every despised minority develops some special strength while building their own community on the margins, one that becomes valued by the wider society. What precious jewels are being awakened in the crucible of our suffering? I suspect that our boon will be nothing less than the wisdom of active transformation. And what could be more needed in the world?
I find people often mention or ask me about “the end” of my transition—“Do you think that there is an end?” I feel like there is an implicit sentiment of a sedentary gender. But change never stops! Can you predict where your gender will go next?
I often use the past tense, saying that I “transitioned” the day I asked the world to call me Jen. That’s my way of dictating the terms of transition, of combating our society’s pathological fixation with genital surgery as the defining moment of becoming, and instead acknowledging the profound power of names.
But yes, in a real way we are all always in transition. The human condition is one of unrelenting change and to deny that reality is to court a particularly pernicious form of suffering. Some journeys are just more visible than others!
Do you think there was a particular moment or person in your life that inspired you to be an optimist?
Honestly, I’ve never thought of myself as an optimist. I’ve been too long in the world, seen to much inexplicable tragedy and know history too well to hold any naïve hopes. What may appear as optimism stems from the realization that the fundamental nature of manifest existence is deep joy. Once you’ve tasted that, you never forget, even in the midst of terrible suffering.
Okay, so we’re both nerds for transsexual gender theorist, activist and performer Kate Bornstein. Why is she one of your heroes?
Did you know that I met her recently? She’s even more wonderful in person. Auntie Kate’s story, as told in Gender Outlaws, was the first trans narrative I encountered that expressed the joy I speak of. There’s an irreverence and playfulness to her and her work that can’t be contained. It spills over into the kind of beautiful mess that I adore.
Have your studies in theology and philosophy affected or influenced your views on gender in any way?
There’s a tension between what I’ve grasped abstractly and what my lived experience is. One of the joys of growing older is an increased capacity for discerning the difference in values of the two. I will say this about my education: It gives me pause, and having a moment between event and response can be the difference between reactive conflict and compassionate, curious engagement.
What explanation have you come up with for yourself about transsexuality? Is there a “trans gene”? Does society make you that way? Way back in your mother’s womb, did you choose this life?
Oddly, my trans status is the one area of potential intellectual investigation utterly resistant to either etiology or teleology. I just don’t care. I am a trans woman. Full stop.
Is androgyny the ultimate answer to earth’s gender woes?
Oh Lord, I hope not! As a justly celebrated practitioner of high femme, as a lover of the masculine and feminine in others, whether male, female, both or neither, universal androgyny is about as appealing to me as a world where beige is the only color. I want it all. And then more.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Anything else you wanna mention?