That Transsexual Guy
Oliver Leon tackles the issues and everyday life of transition and trans* rights.
Hello! This is your older self writing to you. I just thought that I would take the time to send love your way because I know that you are very frustrated and sad.
I am going to tell you some things that people should be telling you now, but aren’t. I am going to be a bit blunt; I hope you don’t mind. Know that I say this with kindness in my heart.
You don’t have to wear bras. You don’t have to wear tight jeans or form-fitting clothes. Wear what you want. Do not sacrifice your comfort levels for social acceptance. You’re worth it, babe.
That quote on the wall near the library from Eleanor Roosevelt? “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”—remember that? I think it’s true, but nobody tells you the tricks to not feeling inferior. From my short experience, I feel it’s about cultivating a sense of “not giving a fuck,” which takes a lot of conscious work and failure.
Which leads me to another subject: failure. It is okay to fail. I know your journalism teacher, Ernie, informed you of this (to your aghast dismay) but this is a gentle reminder. Failure happens. It teaches you important stuff but you have to look for the lesson. But don’t disregard your feelings simply to learn something. Take care of yourself, too.
You will find way better friends once you leave high school (don’t worry though, Ernie and Amy will still be your good buds). You will meet people who have similar values, interests and goals; they will like you for the adorable, polite, generous human that you are. You will meet people of various gender expressions who will want to kiss you. You will have the option to say yes or no, please remember that. You can even be shy and say, “maybe later!” That’s okay too.
You can also not have sex for as long as you want. There is no requirement that you have to have sex by a certain age. That is just social pressure. I know that sex makes you uncomfortable, it actually is for a lot of people.
You’ll start acquiring tattoos—I promise. I know you’re impatient for that. For your life to start. It will. It is.
School is boring. It’s not challenging. I know you know that, that you’re bouncing off the walls of your brain hating grade 11 because your classes have 30 people in them and your teachers cannot spend time to provide you with challenging material. You’ll feel this way in university too. Find balance elsewhere.
Good for you for choosing to tutor other students.
Keep hanging out with Ernie because he is a good teacher who cares about you. Listen hard when he tells you that being gay is okay. Pay attention to when Ms. Claude, your English teacher, plays spoken word videos in class. Those will speak to you.
Those foolish cruel people who tease you? They are not worth it. Do your own shit, even if it’s nerdy, like drawing zombies in the library at lunch hour with socially awkward dudes. They’re nice.
I would like you to know that it’s okay to dislike your body. It’s okay to daydream and wish for another body. Do pay attention to your body and think about what makes you hate locker rooms and gym class so much. Your body knows a lot that your conscious mind doesn’t.
Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Your time at Vision newspaper will be worth something. I will let you in on a little secret: five years from where you are now, you will win Canadian University Press’s John H. McDonald award for student journalism, specifically for your work at your university’s left-wing newspaper.
Oh, speaking of left-wing, keep reading the Montreal Gazette and getting angry at stuff! It’s good for you. And yes, some of the stuff is weird and conservative and you’re allowed to feel uncomfortable and disagree. You’re allowed to disagree. It’s true: your opinion is valuable. It is yours and you are important.
Don’t feel guilty about leaving the church: they want you to feel guilty! They want sinners and homos to burn in hell! It’s all bullshit! Or something. Believe what you want, not what your mother wants (heck, you don’t even have to take what I say at face value, for all you know, I’m a vampire). You’ll figure out your spiritual beliefs as time goes on, and as you keep having interesting experiences.
You will have dark times and sweet times. Keep your chin up through it all and look for tender love, even if it’s just from your teddy bear and your dog. You are lonely and heartsick and those feelings are important.
Being 17 really just sucks sometimes! You’ll make it better because you’re smart enough to know bullshit when you see it.
You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, dear. Your classmates mostly consist of self-absorbed teenagers. But they’ll grow up and so will you. You know what? You can ignore all the jerks after high school. No one will try and cheat and steal your test answers after high school.
Another thing: you absolutely do not have to wear that dress. Fuck the dress. Go buy a suit! Please, insist. You would be happier for it.
I know that at the age of 17, you’re not into hugs, so I will simply offer you my presence. I love you.
I wish you peace; I wish you well.
Keep on keeping on,
Dear friendly loves and lovely friends,
Recently, while meandering home after a long day full of engaging conversations and good proper hugging, I fell into a pensive mood. I realized that my gender is a semi-colon; ambiguous and poetic. (Also occasionally pretentious and always useful.)
As you may or may not know, after two years, I am still not friends with ‘he’ / ‘him’ / ‘his’ pronoun—we are more like suspicious acquaintances who were never introduced properly. As such, I would like for you all to use ‘they’ / ‘them’ / ‘their’ pronouns when addressing my person.
I will be using ‘he’ / ‘him’ / ‘his’ pronouns in academic, professional and familial contexts. ‘He’ pronouns are my public pronouns, if you will, and ‘they’ pronouns are my more personal, intimate pronouns. I am comfortable with most masculinely gendered words (i.e. handsome gentleman) except for ‘guy.’ I am aware of the irony there.
If people ask you why you are referring to Oliver as ‘they’, simply mention that the questioner could ask me directly, instead of badgering you.
A few more notes: if anyone has any alternate suggestions for the title of my column “That Transsexual Guy,” feel free to send them my way. If people ask whether I identify as male or something else entirely, please say that you do not know and have heard me refer to myself as a dandy and a tenderqueer. I do still feel quite connected to the word ‘gentleman’ but the world doesn’t need to know my entire grocery list of comfortable gender expressions.
I may try out ‘ze’ / ‘hir’ (pronounced here) pronouns at some point so prepare your tongues for that. If, for whatever reason, these pronouns feel easier to say for you than ‘they’ / ‘them’ / ‘their,’ you have my permission to use them… although I will suspect you of caring about grammar too much unless otherwise noted.
A friendly and hopefully unneeded warning: if you feel horrendously uncomfortable about this and feel as if you cannot use my preferred pronouns, I will not have sympathy for you. I feel the need to include this warning because gender is a fight to be seen and heard—a fight that I have won bruises and scars from.
If you have questions for me, speak now or forever hold your peace.
Thank you for being my friends. I appreciate each of you deeply.
In love and solidarity,
I sent this letter out to my friends and partners five months ago. I kept a copy of it to myself so I could remember how far I’ve come.
I was not a butch growing up in the lesbian community who then decided to become a man (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I never identified as a woman or a girl. Anybody who has ever gendered me as female was/is deluding themselves. Fortunately, that’s a rare situation these days. I have people assume that just because I am a more dudely person that I should also grow up and be a macho man and get married. Assumptions like that make me want to grab some fancy china plates and smash them against the wall.
But don’t assume I’ve become more aggressive because I’m on testosterone. That was a joke.
Having people stare at me, puzzled and worried about my gender has gotten amusing. On good days, it is invigorating and hilarious. On bad days, it pops my bubble and ruins my mood for a while, but fortunately public consternation no longer has the same affect on me after a lifetime of “are you a boy or a girl?”
At this point in my life, I am making a persistent effort to not care if people perceive me as female, male, androgynous or ‘it.’
Two summers ago, I was complaining to my mom and her boyfriend that I was tired of people staring at me when they weren’t able to “figure out” my gender. My mom’s boyfriend suggested that I stop presenting in an androgynous way: I was trying my best to be perceived as male without access to hormones, and he blamed me for purposely confusing people.
I was so shocked that the only comment I could choke out was, “No.”
I refused to engage with him more than that. To this day, I still try to avoid in-depth conversations with him about gender because we will inevitably end up being in an argument. Usually though this means saying nothing at all whenever he makes a remark about “men are like this” or “women are like this,” so I usually roll my eyes or make a face. He brushes off my dismay.
My point here is that definitions such as “masculine” and “feminine” feel limiting—they don’t convey depth of human expression, they merely define a quality by shoving it into the gender binary. Gentle people become feminized and tough people become masculinized.
I’ve arrived at a space in my life where gender descriptors don’t feel helpful anymore; they feel like boundaries. But just like the boundaries of countries, there are imaginary lines drawn around gender. So I am using ‘they’ pronouns and that has felt good for the five months that I have been referred to as ‘they.’ I’m not a third gender or genderqueer. I’m just me. While identities are useful tools to find like-minded community, when these identities become boxes we feel obligated to adhere to, it is time to examine what this glue is made of and who put it there.
This article isn’t a pirate’s map of my gender, there is no X to mark the spot where I’ll have all the answers. My gender is a buried treasure chest with another map hidden inside. I don’t know if I’ll ever have all the answers. I am okay with that. Anyway, it’s more fun to question gender and threaten to throw it to the sharks.
Ryan Thom, local spoken word poet, has many names.
At birth, Ryan—who prefers to be referred to by third-person plural pronouns—was given an anglophone name, as well as Kai Cheng, their Chinese name. Only Ryan made it to the birth certificate, however. Recently, they have started performing under their drag name, Lady Sin Trayda.
Ryan told me about the Greek myth of Artemis, who was bounced on the knee of Zeus and asked what gifts she wanted. One of these requests was to be given many names, in case she ever got bored with one.
“A lot of older people in my family were dying, and my name, Kai Cheng, was dying too—a whole self!”
So Ryan uses all three names.
“‘Sinful’ is always involved in my stage names,” they said. “I started as ‘Sinfully Gaysian’ at Sinfully Asian,” a restaurant on the McGill University campus.
“I love the imaginary royalty in the rap world and the spoken word world. Lady Sin Trayda is a play off of ‘skin trade.’ Skin trader is a reference to sex work, or prostitution, because that is how people are using that expression.
The reference is more than skin-deep, however; Ryan sees a parallel with their spoken word work, too.
“People often make analogies between sex work and art. You give and the audience takes, pays for it, the audience uses you for emotional catharsis.”
Ryan told me about how their process of growing up was shaped by another area of aesthetics—beauty.
“When I was little, I thought I was ugly. I hated mirrors. Being beautiful was all I ever wanted,” they said.
“If people liked me, had sex with me, they got to decide if I was beautiful. It took me a long time to know I can be pretty. Three years ago, I started wearing make-up and writing things. […] I always wanted to be beautiful when I grew up—and I am beautiful. That’s why I am a grown-up!”
It’s a powerful claim to make, according to Ryan. They believe that “narcissism and self-love have revolutionary potential. Marginalized bodies are seen as unlovable. Beauty is an infinite process. It is a world that you explore and make that is often denied to people. I want to show it to people. Sometimes you have to re-learn it and come back.”
I asked Ryan to describe themselves. They challenged me to say a word, and they would reply with a word, and we would go back and forth describing our respective identities.
They started with “smooth.” We listed feelings, book titles and sensations.
I finished the list with “exasperation,” a reference to our earlier discussion about educating others about our identities.
Ryan is studying at McGill University, getting an undergraduate degree in social work. On Nov. 8, 2012, they opened for internationally celebrated Jamaican-Canadian dub poet D’Bi Young at La Sala Rossa.
Originally from Vancouver, B.C., in April, Ryan will be heading west to be an artist-in-residence at The Banff Centre in Alberta, where Young will be teaching.
“A dream come true!” Ryan said. “She’s an inspiration to me and I’ve been following her for a long time […] she pushed me to go beyond myself and deeper into myself. I always thought, ‘I will learn poetry on the streets and nowhere else!’ And then I found out that D’bi is teaching at Banff and I decided to learn in the classroom.”
Despite an upcoming performance Jan. 20 with the Throw Poetry Collective at Le Divan Orange, Ryan’s hoping to edge away from poetry a bit.
“There is magic in the stories of dislocated people of colour. I want to write a sense of legacy and placehood for people of diaspora. People of colour, freaks, monsters,” they said.
“[Salman] Rushdie writes in Imaginary Homeland about a homeland of not having one, an India of the mind, between minds for me and people I know. [My] homeland exists between people and not necessarily rooted in the land in the world. It belongs to a story instead—a story I, my sister, my parents and friends created.”
The Throw Poetry Collective featuring Ryan Thom / Jan. 20 / Divan Orange (4234 St. Laurent Blvd.) / Doors 7:00 p.m., show 8:00 p.m. / $5.00 students, $7.00 general / Twelve spots for poetry slammers / Four open mic spots available
Susan Jane Bigelow is a science fiction author, political writer, librarian and cat lady.
She and I first met each other on Twitter (she goes by @whateversusan), then again in person in June when she came to Montreal with her partner.
I brought her flowers and fresh bagels. She welcomed me with a smile as big and happy as the sun.
She has published three books to date, and recently had a wonderful short story published in the Topside Press’s The Collection. The nearly 400-page short fiction anthology is written entirely by transsexual, transgender and gender-variant authors and has exclusively trans* protagonists.
“In the six years before I transitioned, I wrote two books and a small handful of terrible short stories,” said Susan.
“In the past two years, though, I’ve written five books, two of which are either published or about to be published, and lots of stories/essays.
“For some reason transitioning was like a creative fire lit under me. I’m sure that not obsessing about gender all the time helped. I also think transition helped me find a writing voice that I really like.”
More than just a voice, the transition also had an effect on the characters she writes.
“Renna, who is the protagonist of the second Extrahumans book, Fly Into Fire, is trans*,” said Susan. “There’s also a lot of themes in those books that I think trans* people could relate to, like passing/stealth, the importance of names, feeling like an outcast, etc.”
Her Extrahumans Union trilogy features humans with ‘extra’ powers living under a repressive government. It’s a post-war science-fiction setting where humans are colonizing the stars.
Former disillusioned superheroes meet a paranoid fascist dictatorship hoping for world domination. The twist is that our superhero can’t fly anymore and becomes homeless. She meets Michael Forward, who can see the future.
Together, along with allies acquired throughout the trilogy, they set off to save the world. Hey, what’s science fiction without saving the entirety of humanity?
“Right now, I’m revising the second book in a trilogy about three sisters and a bunch of meddlesome aliens,” said Susan. “The first one comes out in the spring, and once these revisions are done, I’ll probably get to work on the third book. Someday, I’d like to try and write a few more short stories, though, and maybe something more about Mona.”
Mona, who’s the main character in her short story, “Ramona’s Demons” in Topside Press’s anthology The Collection, is a former demon-hunter whose magical ability has ‘decreased’ as she has transitioned and now works for the Central Connecticut Supernatural Services Agency.
I won’t tell you what she’s been tasked with finding—I don’t want to spoil the story!
“I have plans to write a gender/magic fantasy book, and I’ve got maybe a quarter of it done so far,” said Susan. “As for Mona, I’d love to write more of her. She’s a fun character! I’ve promised myself that I’m going to finish all of my current projects before I start something new, however.”
The conversation eventually shifted towards gender, as it often does when transsexual folk get together.
Susan assured me that it was not all that odd for her to write cisgender (non-trans) characters.
“I assure you, I’ve done extensive research into the lives of cisgender people! Do you want to see my notes? I have lots of notes,” she said.
“I could imagine putting on a gender like an outfit, and taking it off at the end of the day! That would be cool.
“I think gender will increasingly be something we experiment with and play with, and our understanding of what gender means will expand. I’m hoping we get to a point where a lot of the ridiculous notions we have about gender are put to rest.”
For all its importance in her fiction, though, Susan’s very conscious of the very real implications of trans*ness in real life.
“I think facilitating access to both treatment and support is a huge deal. In the United States, health insurance rarely covers medical treatment, and therapists and support groups are often not well-versed in trans* issues.
“Non-discrimination measures, especially those that cover employment, are also vital. One big hope I have for our community is that we find a way to focus on the positive; I think that’s something we really need.”
In early October, I tweeted about my frustration around not having trans* writers in a contemporary English class syllabus, and had the good fortune to be heard by Topside Press, a publishing house started in 2011 with the intention of publishing “authentic trans narratives.”
I recently received a free advance review copy of their lastest anthology The Collection in the mail from Tom at Topside Press.
I only recognized three authors in the book—and that’s only because I’ve lurked around the internet so much.
I told my professor that there ought to be trans women writers in her course’s syllabus and she agreed.
There hadn’t been room, she said. I mentioned The Collection to her— almost 400 pages of transsexual, transgender, and gender-variant authors writing short fiction with a trans* main character.
No cisgender main characters.
Transgender authors have voices and I can hear them and read them and share these stories with my friends.
I can lend out this book, I can share it with my parents, I can tell people that, “Hey look, here are some great stories about stuff that trans people do that have absolutely nothing or absolutely everything to do with their transition or their gender because these characters are going about living their lives.” Just living their lives, without sensation.
It is a tough read. If you have a history of being misgendered, you may have to read this book slowly, in fits and starts, like I did.
I kept reading because it’s an anthology brimming with talent.
The characters easily escape the book to stand beside you. The tales within challenge traditional story structure—don’t expect satisfying happy endings or even necessarily hopeful ones.
You’ll read about superheroes who hang up their capes to change genders, drug-fuelled romances, and friends working together to help keep custody of a teen.
My particular favourite stories are Elliott Deline’s Dean & Teddy, K. Tait Jarobe’s Greenhorn, and Donna Ostrowsky’s The Queer Experiment.
I had an interesting time reading characters who preferred ze/hir pronouns. I realized that I didn’t know how to gender or imagine hir bodies.
Gender seeps and slinks oh so deeply into our brains, into our judgements; even people who live and breathe gender trouble have to unlearn all that binary schooling.
I lent my professor my personal copy of the book after it was published. She was impressed and declared that she is going to buy her own copy. Perhaps we’ll see The Collection on a university syllabus sometime soon!
Montreal launch of The Collection featuring author contributor Oliver Pickle/Dec. 2/Le Cagibi (5490 St. Laurent Blvd.)/8 p.m./Free