In my Law and the Politics of Identity class, we are required to report on the readings that we are assigned for that week, with a minimum of 4 reports.
This week, our assigned reading is around transgender experience. I am also one of the student instructors this week (everyone is required to be the student instructor one time during the semester; I signed up for this week). As such, I decided not to do the typical synthesis of the week's readings and instead to write a personal story for the class' consumption (they get that writing at least one day prior to that week's class). I figure they'll get enough of the legal synthesis during the actual class session.
I've included the text of my paper below the fold. None of it will be news to long-term readers, but I know some will want to read it. It was partly influenced by the Tranny Roadshow the other night, where one of the performers talked about suicide.
I hate knives.
They say that who you are is greatly influenced by who your parents are. Who can deny that? They (I don’t know who “they” is; don’t ask me) also say that family violence is transmitted from father to son. My father was a violent man. Violence was his reaction to my mother’s superior language skills. I hated that about him. Once, when I was a young boy he literally chased me out of the house and around the back yard, carrying a butcher knife. I escaped by vaulting over the fence. I truly believe he had a murderous intent. For a long time after that, I used to imagine what it would be like to be stabbed. How would it feel? How long would it hurt before you eventually died? Would death come quickly? I hoped so.
For most of my life, I lived as a male. I was classified as such on my birth certificate and I was treated as such from that moment until I finally had enough of it and began to live my life as a woman. It was no one’s “fault” and I harbor no ill will toward those who treated me as such. How could they know? I’m a fairly smart, self-aware and perceptive person. I knew what it would take to fit in, to get along. When my dad took my teddy bear from me, I cried, but I got over it. I was a boy and boys simply don’t have dolls. I wasn’t good at sports, but I gave it my best shot. I really did.
When I was old enough, I dropped out of high school and joined the US Submarine Service. In boot camp I was picked on because I had no facial hair. “Shave! Damnit, you look like a little girl!” I shaved. But, I was tough. Others couldn’t make it. I saw one guy slit his wrists with a razor blade. I hate knives.
When I was raped in the Navy, I told no one. Surely, this was my fault. I looked too much like a girl. Even my nickname was “Debbie”. I grew a moustache. Would that protect me? I learned how to fight. I even joined the US Navy boxing team (like other sports, I wasn’t very good and thus didn’t make it very far, but I did learn how to hit and block). Finally, in the last months of my time in the Navy I had earned my shipmates’ respect. But, at what cost?
I married the girl I fell in love with in high school. We had three lovely daughters. I relaxed into my life. After many years of marriage, I felt as if I had finally found a safe space. I let my guard down. When I came out to my wife, I was certain she would understand. She did not. “This is action” she told me. “I don’t care how you feel inside; in fact, I know you as one of the most feminine souls I’ve ever known, but why must you act on those feelings? Why must you be a woman?” After much effort on her part, and after having finally made the decision to move on with her life, without me, she accused me of the worst sin I could have ever committed. She looked me in my eyes and told me that I was my father. I was just as abusive. No, I never struck her, or the children. My abuse was different. I had led her to believe that I was someone else. She had trusted my lie and in its revelation, I had inflicted upon her serious emotional and psychological trauma. I believed her. I was an abuser.
In the kitchen, we had a drawer just for knives. I could do it, I was now sure. I opened the drawer and took out the largest, a butcher knife. I held it to my chest. One quick thrust. How long would it hurt? Would that hurt stop the hurt inside? Would death come quickly? I hoped so. I put the knife away. I walked into the bedroom and shut the door; I tied two of my belts together, looped it over the archway between our bed and bath rooms, stood on a chair and tied it to my neck. I kicked away the chair. I hate knives.
As I blacked out, my wife happened upon me, saving my life.
Many times since then I’ve wondered about her words: “Why must you act on those feelings?” Was I simply the most selfish person ever? Did I not love her, and my children? Was this something that I did? Or was it someone I was? Did I try to die because I wanted to be away from my pain, or hers?
Over the years, I would lose at least 3 jobs because of my gender identity or expression. In addition to having lost my wife, I would get a letter from my eldest daughter telling me, in part: “I can never love Denise – she is an unpleasant, manipulative, hateful person.” Does this define my identity? Do they?
Identity, I think, can only exist at the intersection of your projections and other’s reception and response. Everything I ever cared about, I lost. Family, home, jobs, financial stability, friends. For what? So that I could “be who I was.” It was a terrible price to pay. But, in the end, my hatred of knives proved a good thing. I am happy with who I am, I have found new love and new friends – and a new career! – and I still have two of my children.
Gender is a complex social construction. It has been developed over quite a number of years. Transcending or even transgressing that boundary is fraught with misunderstanding and fear. I don’t know if it’s immutable. Was my gender (as different from my chromosomal composition or the shape of my genitals) fixed at birth? You decide.