Getting Clear

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Getting Clear: Body Work for Women, Anne Kent Rush, The Bookworks/Random House 1973.

In my first encounter with this book, I found it at a thrift store in Cambridge MA around 1998. It looked old and kind of cool so I picked it up for 50 cents. I don’t think I even paid attention enough to realize what it was about that day.

But a few months later I flipped through it absent-mindedly, and then mentioned it to my therapist. “Oh yes, that’s a great one”, she said, “it’s helped a lot of women. Especially women who suffered sexual abuse, but really all women. You should try to read it.”

Like a lot of transsexuals, I was at war with my body. I’d been on hormones, got an orchi, off hormones, feeling miserable & hot flashes, back on, plus a lot of electrolysis at various points, which is really uncomfortable. Not to mention all the insulting hurts. (You know how people are.)

So one night I was home alone, and out of booze so I couldn’t just get drunk until it was late enough to go to bed. I started to read a few pages of Getting Clear, and I came to the exercise “Tuning In”.

“Ok I’ll try it!” I thought. I wasn’t going to get naked, but I took off my shoes, and lay down on the couch. My right arm was a little scrunched against the back but at least it was a long couch and I could stretch my legs all the way. I closed my eyes and took a few breaths.

I felt a little jumpy and it was hard to lay still. “Focus your attention inside your body” I thought. So I tried. But all I could feel was pain. Like a million knives inside my body, slicing me apart from every angle. I felt it in my stomach. I felt it in my arms. I felt it in my chest. I felt it in my legs.

I swung bolt upright in shock: “I’m physically in pain!”

As crazy as it sounds, this was a revelation to me. I hadn’t been able to figure out what was wrong for the life of me. It was March, and over the previous winter I’d gotten so drunk I fell ill and missed a week of work. Not once, but twice! Both times, I could remember the exact moment I got sick, while I was at the bar. “God I’m so drunk, and I’m so tired,” I thought. “And suddenly my throat has a horrible tickle. I should just go home. But fuck it!” And then, both times, I ordered another drink.

They were mad at me at my job, which probably goes without saying. Besides all the sickness, I’d spent a few weeks focused on trans activism after my friend got murdered, which really wasn’t my job description. I was playing in a band but I’d been missing a lot of practices, and getting in arguments when I showed up. They were mad at me too. I was an alcoholic, and I was dating an alcoholic.

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Slowly it all started to make sense. “When I walk down the street, but I feel so terrible and I can’t stop thinking about falling into a pit and getting impaled by rough wooden stakes, it’s because my body is physically in pain!”

“When I have somewhere to be, and I’m on my way there, but then I duck into the thrift store to look at used records ‘just for a second’, and then next thing I know it’s three hours later and I missed whatever I needed to do, it’s because my body is physically in pain!”

“When I think I’m going to run out of weed and I start to panic I won’t be able to sleep so then I buy two bottles of wine on my way home, one for today and one for tomorrow, but then drink them both, it’s because my body is physically in pain!”

This insight was a shock to me. For three or four years, as my life got more and more dysfunctional and my horizons kept shrinking, I had just assumed that my brain was broken. I was “chemically depressed” (like my mom kept insisting), or just a loser, or weak, or too scared.

I was scared. I was scared for very good reasons! I still remembered in great detail the lessons I’d learned in high school: if you take care of yourself and put time into your appearance, you become a target and you will be punished. But if you don’t shower for a month and wear the same dirty jeans every day, that’s fine!

Or the one about “Really the problem is you’re acting gay, but since I can’t articulate that I’m going to institutionally punish you for ‘being a rebel’ even though you’re in all the honors classes, you don’t talk back to teachers, and you don’t do drugs. Not that I can say this, but you’re an easy target.”

Or the one about the townies driving the white Lincoln. Or the one about the skinheads at that Fugazi show. (I mean, really? Wasn’t that supposed to be a progressive band?)

Or later on, the trouble I had intentionally sought out on my own: that month snorting heroin during a heat wave while everyone in New York had diarrhea when the city water went bad, or that weird day I had a terrible headache until I spent four hours smoking crack with some random dude who’d just got out of prison in the alley behind a building, or that weird night at the sex club when the Bridge & Tunnel guy with the heavy Italian accent and the cheap suit wouldn’t stop following me around until finally I got irritated and gave him a handjob with the hand where I wore three big rings hoping that would put him off, but it still didn’t, or that time it was my birthday so I went to a bar by myself and sat in the corner drinking scotch by myself but while I was riding my bike home my pants got caught in the chain (it was a fixed gear) and I sprained my ankle, but I had a job interview the next morning and I limped in still drunk and they sent me home after ten minutes?

Seriously, I was a piece of trash. I had thrown myself out. I decided I wanted to live like a tree, just observing my environment but not reacting to it or controlling it, so I wore the same outfit every day for two years and spent my time drunk. When I got evicted from my loft, I couldn’t separate the broken children’s toys and torn scraps of paper I’d inadvertently picked up from the artifacts I held closest to my heart. My friends showed up to help me move, thinking I’d be packed and ready to go, and the floor was covered in a uniform six inches of debris. Talk about a feeling of shame.

But actually I wasn’t a piece of trash! I had been a person at one point before. I would be a person again. But with all the bullshit I had internalized, my body was physically in pain! It wasn’t that I was mentally defective. My mind had stored all the hurt in my organs, my limbs, and my skin.

I never opened up Getting Clear again, because that was as much as i could handle at that point, and the next time I moved I gave it back to the thrift store. But it was a watershed moment for me.

After that day, when I had anxiety, it didn’t make me depressed on its own. I reminded myself that my body was physically in pain. When you’re in pain like that, it’s normal to have anxiety and depression. I forgave my mind for its problems. And in forgiving my mind’s failures, anxiety, neediness, drunkenness, hatefulness, my body started to let go of the pain it had stored.

This was a really slow process and it took a long time. But that’s how it started.

So why am I telling this story now? I hadn’t thought about Getting Clear for many years. But recently I went to a hot springs with a friend. Floating in the pool, I got stuck in an important solipsism – floating allows the body to release tension, but also to release mental tension – this was a space for healing – but what did I need to heal from this time? Was it really just that the small of my back has been sore for months? Shouldn’t I just stop running, or take a break from riding horses, or get a new mattress?

My war with with my body is so much more subtle now. I exercise every day! I wear yoga pants to the grocery store! I walked around in public naked and didn’t have a panic attack! I eat fresh vegetables and meat every day! I often drink too much wine, though I stop before I get sick.

But I still have a lot of hurt. I have hurt from sex I had that I really shouldn’t have had. I have mental hurt and physical nerve damage from the srs. I have hurt and anxiety from my failure to find love. I still have hurt from childhood bath time – did that count as sexual abuse, since it was on my genitals, but wasn’t erotically motivated?

When I got back from the hot springs, I got on the internet and ordered a new copy of Getting Clear. I just got it in the mail today. It smells like the incense the woman who used to own it burned. Kind of earthy and hippy and a little awkward, like the drawing in Tuning In.

I’m really glad this book has come back to me again, I think I can get a little further this time.

Victim in Pain

Why am I the one going insane? Why am I the one to blame?

That line from Victim in Pain by Agnostic Front has always stuck with me. It was a very apt description of my situation towards the end of high school: I was the one to blame for the bullying by classmates and teachers, because my behavior was out of line. Even my parents took this stance. There was no discussion of disciplining the students harassing me, but there were plenty of “interventions” to try to get me to man up. These interventions had actually been going on since I was a little boy, so it was magical thinking to believe it would suddenly be different, but that’s how people think.

Ironically, during this same period of time I was involved in the only all-male community which I ever intentionally sought out, which was the hardcore music scene. This was during the transition from “hardcore punk” (think Circle Jerks) which was actually pretty much indistinguishable from punk, to “hardcore” as its own genre – for any 90’s readers I have, all those bands you love on Bridge 9 are just trying to sounds like Blood for Blood, who themselves were just trying to sound like early Wrecking Crew, Sick of it All, and Youth of Today, but were late to the party.

There was a particularly exciting period of about a year when all the hardcore dance moves that later became codified were still being developed – windmills, picking up pennies, spin kicks etc. There was a group of men from Connecticut in particular, who would go to shows in both Boston and New York, who did a lot to spread the new dance style around one summer. Exciting times!

As I mentioned in a recent post, the skinheads got fed up with me at a certain point and made it clear I was no longer welcome. As far as beatdowns go, this one barely even qualified, but it was terrifying nonetheless. I had just started to hear about FSU, a supposedly anti-Nazi hardcore gang, which went on to such levels of thugishness they achieved national infamy. FSU was definitely the main driver for why I dropped out of the hardcore scene.

Anyway this is a blog about trans issues and politics, not music. But I was thinking about this last night at yoga class. I like my teacher’s playlist, though none of the music is anything I would listen to myself. It’s kind of world music-influenced electronica, always with female vocals, that is simultaneously catchy, soothing, fun, and ignorable. On the other hand, except for when I go on Diane Cluck or Cocteau Twins binges, I pretty much only listen to angry music by men! If there’s no screaming, it’s immediately off my cd player!

Over the summer I left yoga one night and headed to the Whole Foods down town. I’d been listening to the same Christian metalcore cd all summer, and that day was no exception. I had my windows down and the music up super loud. It always makes me self conscious, because I look like a grown woman, but I listen to the same music as 15 year old boys. I need it loud enough that I feel the music on my skin. I live in a really privileged area, where everyone is happy and easygoing or pretends to be, so I always worry about sticking out. I thought “What the hell is wrong with me?”

And then I remembered: I’m in pain. My body is physically in pain. The yoga and the floating and the letting go and the forgiving have been helping, but I still have so much trauma stored in my body, I’m still in pain. That’s why I only ever want to listen to the pained screaming of men who feel unjustly wronged.

That particular cd has some spoken word interludes where the singer is reciting a poem that another man wrote. It’s about the pain he internalized when his uncle molested him as a boy, and his mother knew about it but was busy smoking crack so she blamed him. It’s a really brave thing to include, within that genre of music. (Though, interestingly the pits at this band’s live shows are on the extreme side of violent – perhaps God absolves them for their punching?)

The part of Christianity that offers forgiveness and salvation to an imperfect person living in an imperfect world is really appealing to me, for obvious reasons. I’m very fallible, I made more terrible decisions than I can count, and frankly it’s a miracle that I was never seriously beaten up or raped, or overdosed on anything. I certainly put myself in the position for all those things to happen many times – like I wrote before, I had thrown myself away.

So what precipitates this outpouring today is the really tragic story about Nancy/Nathan Verhelst that GallusMag posted a few days ago. Basically, Verhelst suffered some extreme mental abuse from her mother as a girl, decided to transition, including both top surgery and phallo, and then felt even worse about their situation post-transition and requested to be euthenized.

As Redressalert said, it’s “iatrogenic suicide”. That is, the suicide was caused by the treatment. People keep arguing about whether or not Verhelst was “actually trans”. That is the wrong argument. Verhelst was obviously trans, by the only definition of trans which is consistent and makes sense: they were taking cross-sex hormones, had srs, and were presenting themself as the opposite sex.

The right discussion to have here, is how did Verhelst’s situation get to that point? How did the trans healthcare providers fail so miserably in predicting the potential benefits and drawbacks of that course of treatment? How could the therapist with clear conscience sign off on Verhelst’s death sentence? What other options did they explore?

But realistically, what resources are available for people who become trans, and then realize they’ve made a mistake? Not a lot!

It breaks my heart to think about Verhelst. I would have accepted this person, no matter what they wanted to do! Why wasn’t I aware of their existence, so that I could reach out? Our lives as trans people aren’t easy. I’m so fucking sick of the sugar-coating, and all the cheerleading by males with sexual fetishes who are getting bigger boners than ever now that they’re taking hormones.

Dear Nancy, I know you can’t read this, and I know our situations are completely different, but I’m also a victim in pain. I hope and pray you’re in a better place now, but I wish you could have found it here on earth, with the small group of us who seem to understand just how difficult and fraught this trans thing really is. Sending you my love.

Thinking about Radical Feminism as an mtf

Backstory: I was born male but I’ve been living as a girl/woman for over half of my life now, and I’ve read a lot of radical feminist texts. In fact, the first feminist book I read was Andrea Dworkin’s Intercourse, when I was 15. So I’ve been thinking about radical feminism for even longer than I’ve been transsexual! This post is kind of long, because it takes a while to build a foundation. Please try to read the whole thing!

My understanding of radical feminism, and why transwomen are different from females

Radical feminism is based on the analysis that females as a sex class are oppressed by males as a sex class. It’s not about individuals. If you don’t believe that patriarchy exists, you might want to review statistics about violent crime world-wide. It’s overwhelmingly perpetrated by males against females. But I’ll assume you (the reader) already know this.

Since you do believe that patriarchy exists, then you have to acknowledge that on average, trans women grew up with male privilege. Trans women who were visibly gender non-conforming in childhood probably suffered oppression for being gender non-conforming. But many/most trans women live outwardly as gender conforming boys/men up until their “discovery” of their trans identity. In fact, many trans women live as men into their 30’s, working as men in male-dominated fields, marrying women and fathering children. Hint: that’s not ‘female privilege!’

Since trans women grow up with male privilege, which is a totally different way of seeing the world, it’s legitimate to differentiate between females and transwomen. Female socialization means “you’re not a full human being.” For females, that starts at birth, and continues in your adult life. Transwomen as a class don’t experience that socialization from birth. In fact, we don’t experience it until we began passing as female. After all, gender is an assigned characteristic based on perceived sex, not an identity.

Since transwomen and females are legitimately different in important ways (socialization, biology), it’s to the benefit of all women (both female and trans-) that we have spaces exclusive to our own kind. Females need somewhere to unpack the bullshit around being female socialized from birth. Transwomen need somewhere to discuss the whole of our lives, including the parts when we lived as boys/men, without fear of that discussion changing the way people perceive our gender.

So wbw is not transphobic – it’s not even about us! The least we can do as (trans) women is to support our female sisters. If we don’t support them, why should they support us?

Practical things

So, let’s consider some practical implications. I think it’s valid and important for females to have wbw spaces – in my mind, this means things like MWMF, Radfem2013, and female-only discussion groups, whether it’s a book club, a survivors of CSA group, or whatever. If a group of women invites a transwomen to join them, great. But transwomen don’t have any “right” to female space – please! That’s like complaining to the teacher in elementary school that some “mean kids” left you out, and then the teacher tells those kids they “have to be” friends with you.

Transwomen shouldn’t use women’s locker rooms (or other spaces where people get naked) unless they pass, and they’re discrete enough that no one notices if they’re preop. Sorry but penis doesn’t belong in female space, even if it’s on someone who’s perceived to be a woman. That’s just out of safe-space considerations for females who’ve been raped. Likewise, the presence of a transwoman who’s obviously male in a space where women are naked is also triggering for obvious reasons. Whether or not a non-passing transwoman has had surgery doesn’t matter in this case, unfortunately.

Bathrooms are a little more flexible, since there’s no expectation of nudity. My perspective is that the right time to switch public bathrooms is when you’re likely to cause less commotion in one than the other. But this has to be reality-based. A while ago Cathy Brennan posted an incredible story of a transwoman who was asked to leave the women’s bathroom. She described her encounter with the security guard: “When I said it had never caused a problem before, and no-one has either noticed or cared I was trans, he replied that they noticed – implying that I do not pass as a woman, which I don’t believe is correct.” Hahaha we don’t get to decide if we pass, that’s up to other people!

That said, we as transwomen need to stop pretending that it “never happens” that trans women use bathrooms and locker rooms for “improper purposes”. We need to call these people out! If we don’t do the difficult work of policing the boundaries of our community by calling Colleen Francis a male sex predator, or calling out Reed Barrow aka sissytgkristal or whatever, then trans gets redefined as “sexually predatory males.”

Likewise, we need to call out the anti-lesbian rape apologists, like Morgan Paige, Julia Serrano, Savanah Garmond aka leftytgirl, etc. We also need to call out trans women who advocate physical violence against females – that would be Monica Roberts, Kinsey Hope/genderbitch, Anthony Casebaer, Char the butcher, etc.

You may have noticed a pattern, which is that all of these people have been profiled on pretendbians. (Except genderbitch, who definitely should be.) So, I actually don’t support pretendbians being taken down, until these people change their behavior! Maybe it’s not the place of a non-trans-identified lesbian to do the callouts, but since the trans community has failed, I’m glad someone is doing it.

How this effected me personally

I personally experienced male privilege growing up, because my interests in technical fields (which translates to high-paying career in adulthood) were encouraged. Nobody said “You like math, you should be a teacher!”, they said “You like math, you should be a scientist!” That’s a pay difference of about $70k btw. It’s kind of the definition of patriarchal bullshit in elementary school education!

I also personally experienced a lot of prejudice because in middle and high school, I was gender non-conforming. This came in the form of verbal and physical harassment, both by students and by teachers and school administrators. It really messed up my self-worth, and unfortunately I still haven’t recovered 100% from that.

Despite the occasional physical abuse I experienced, my physiology allowed me a much greater sense of physical safety than many of my female friends in general – I was taller, I had broader shoulders, I had more upper body strength, and I wasn’t worried about getting raped, since I didn’t have a vagina. I also had the first 13 years of my life when I wasn’t as obviously gender non-conforming, where I had felt sure of the physical integrity of my body. In contrast, I had a number of female friends who were sexually abused as children. CSA is much more common among females, btw! It’s related to that patriarchy thing.

So, the privilege and the oppression didn’t just “cancel each other out” – rather, they intersected in some complicated ways, which for obvious reasons is the definition of intersectionality!

My first introduction to gay and lesbian theory was to radical feminism, thank god! I later got swept up in queer theory, but I had to discard it eventually since it failed to explain the world I live in. 99% of the people in the world base their definitions of man and woman on physical sex, and secondarily on conformance with sex roles. Trans theory assumes that a tiny fraction of the population gets to make up new definitions which have nothing to do with anything, and everyone else is wrong! That analysis left me really depressed, because it’s so in conflict with the real world, so I discarded it.

Recently I’ve taken up radical feminist analysis again. It’s challenging to me but ultimately feels a lot more liberatory. I am a male who lives as a woman. I’m never going to not be male. By accepting that fact, it can’t hurt me any more. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be out all the time. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop hanging out with women and “go back to my roots” by joining a men’s movement group (lol). But it means that maybe I have some hope of finding peace in my life.

I don’t know “why” I’m trans. At this point, it happened a lot time ago, and it’s kind of a done deal. Were my motivations “correct”? I don’t know. I definitely said some sexist bullshit when I was a teenager and thinking about transitioning! All I know now is that I’m happier at this point in my life than I’ve ever been, so I probably made the right decisions.

I’m very selective about who I talk about being trans with irl, because I know how the rumor mill works, and I know how people will change their behavior towards me when they find out I’m transsexual. The only way to cut that bullshit out that I have found, was to not talk about being transsexual irl. I also cut a lot of people out of my life, over the many years after I transitioned.

That means life is kind of lonely sometimes, but thank god I have tumblr, other internet communities, a few irl trans friends who I intentionally sought out, and a few special female friends who I can talk about it with.