A white, strawberry-blonde toddler sits in a plastic toy red car beneath a Christmas Tree.

baking gender from scratch

There was a period of time in my life –– specifically, prior to my first contact with trans-supportive physical environments –– when I regarded gender creativity as such with suspicion. This was true even and especially once I myself was trans. I could not understand people my age and older whose genders were not so much documentable features of themselves but rather glitter-covered, purposefully obstructive, and necessarily defiant and even antagonistic toward gender-conformity and its observers. It was around this time that I found the blog Raising My Rainbow. Several years later, I found the blog of Martie Sirois, the mother of a gender-nonconforming child and all-around effective accomplice to trans people at large.

I read her blog with fascination, often fantasizing about what my life would have been like, had I been raised explicitly outside the gender binary. Of course, looking back today I realize that the hegemonic position of the gender binary means that merely having parents who disagreed with wouldn’t free me from its clutches. But back then, I didn’t know what “hegemony” meant and still held the entry-level view that there were two discrete things, “sex” (which is “real”) and “gender” (which is socially constructed), and that one was beholden to sex but could discover new possibilities with gender. The fact that I held this view –– as many did in 2013 and 2014 –– made me even more enchanted by this mother who gave birth to a child and then chose to ignore that child’s “sex” in favor of a degree of gender freedom.

Something I find interesting about Sirois’s blog is that it does not only use “gender creative child” but also “gender creative life” –– perhaps a swing at those medico-social systems that claim desperately that transness in kids is temporary; disregardable. Semantics notwithstanding, though, these were resources through which I could scroll for hours –– especially Raising My Rainbow, which existed back when, despite my emergent identity, I knew next to nothing about transness and was looking for answers.

Since then, I’ve simultaneously become more academic in my transness and more creative (although it should be noted that those two attributes neither must nor should be in opposition to each other). As the jargon I use to discuss my transness becomes more comfortable in my mouth, so do “creative” statements that my prior self would have dismissed as meaningless. For example, I remember telling my therapist last year, “My gender is vengeance.” There’s no way to articulate what precisely that statement means for me, but it’s a felt reality and I’m learning to speak it. Even in spaces in which being transgender was not deemed morally wrong, being trans is seen as just as concrete and “unfun” as being cis is: merely a fact of life rather than a creative pursuit. As we know, gender is never “merely” a fact of life: it’s a mark, an action, a material position, a transgression, a recognition, and so much else. Why not an act of creativity, while we’re at it?

As we know, gender is never “merely” a fact of life: it’s a mark, an action, a material position, a transgression, a recognition, and so much else. Why not an act of creativity, while we’re at it?

Much of what young-trans-me feared about gender-as-creation, I think, was the accompanying knowledge that gender was a weapon dealt to us that we can not shrug off under present conditions, however intensely I and others might identify with genderlessness. We can’t choose to wholly disidentify with gender, or live in a parallel universe to it: our options for living gender on a daily basis range from complacence to deviance, but no matter what we are in the belly of the beast. When I first learned about being nonbinary, I thought I had found some enlightened “middle road” wherein I wouldn’t be subject to gender’s vice-grip. In order to stay “respectable” and away from gender, then, I would have to be politely and quietly trans. If I was too, dare I say, “flamboyant,” my cover would be blown and I would be a girl once more. But no: I was still in the belly, still subject to cissexism, still misgendered, still forever seen as doing-girl-wrong, doing-boy-wrong, and never as doing [whatever this is]-right.

As I’ve grown and studied the myriad ways in which we dance and die with gender, I’ve come to realize what all marginalized people (hopefully) come to realize: that being respectable won’t soften the violence of oppression. All it might do is transfer that violence onto people more visibly de(v/f)iant than oneself, and even then, no one is left marked yet unscathed. It would be a contradictory statement; a contradictory way of being. If I saw something wrong with utter gender insanity in myself and others –– and I mean that with wholehearted solidarity and respect –– then I was simply seeing something wrong with the bogusness of gender itself, and was choosing to project my hatred of gender onto those who clearly resist it, including me.

I realized that this was a topic I wanted to discuss earlier this afternoon, when I was texting my friend, Leo. He’s been on testosterone for about two months now, and we were discussing are vastly different relationships with and uses of the hormone. While he injects a “standard” dose of T and views T as necessary for his survival in the way I view my mastectomy, I have periodically used and not used a low dose of T, in gel form. Although I’m coming to feel it as more of a natural and good part of my life, for a long time I felt little at all about it. I began with one pump of the gel, then two. I stopped for a time, went back on. In Amsterdam, I stopped using it entirely for several months, and then began again near the end of my trip, using three pumps a night instead of two so I could use up the bottle and not have to carry it home with me. Gender-creative. Hormone-creative.

There is something intoxicating about looking at that T every night and thinking, “I can do whatever I want with this.” I never have to use it again. I can ask for an increase in my prescription if I want it. I can stop using it for a year and begin using it again next year (this particular bottle expires in 2020, after all). Whatever choice I make won’t make me “more” or “less” of whatever gender-word I decide to align myself with, and my authenticity doesn’t ride upon my use or non-use of certain aspects of medical transition. Instead of feeling as I did in middle school art class –– forced under penalty of failure to make whatever drawing or painting Mrs. – decided I must make –– I feel today more like I’m writing in my journal and doodling in the margins. Gender creativity never exists outside its social context, much as we wish it did, but to create one’s gender-body-self by doodling rather than by following classroom rules is liberating nonetheless.

Gender creativity never exists outside its social context, much as we wish it did, but to create one’s gender-body-self by doodling rather than by following classroom rules is liberating nonetheless.

There are groups of trans people who sincerely believe in (boring!) essentialist ideas about transness: these are the types who will spout “born in the wrong body” narratives and insist that everyone else must relate to those narratives, too. Some will go so far as to side with leading medico-psychiatric bodies (and siding with institutions in power is generally not a good sign) that transness (more precisely, dysphoria) is a disease which physical transition must “cure.” The very nature of these statements, which young-me came to internalize and current-me is unlearning, flies in the face of creativity. It traps you in precisely the same way that cisness traps you: by many of these logics, if I am not a woman, I never was and never will be, and thus must be a man. And to qualify as a trans man, I must go along with preconceived notions of manhood, and any evidence of vestigial femininity can and will be used against me as I transition.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same trap into which people of all genders, including cisgender people, fall. This is not only me, the nonbinary person whose increasing creativity is allowing them to reclaim femininities that I (was) denied in myself. This is the cis woman who questions her womanhood because she can’t give birth to children (notably, a struggle which many cis and trans women both share). These are men of all relationships to manhood who find themselves unable to access their emotions beneath the logics of patriarchy. It feels as though we as a society are trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to liberate ourselves from gender doctrine.* This requires a shared understanding of gender-creativity, as well as people willing to fuck (up) gender merely as a way of exposing its ridiculousness. Exposing gender requires being ridiculous ourselves. It requires gendering ourselves as vengeance, as punk, as a flower, as a piece of art or music, etc. It requires us to be glittery, obnoxious, boa-wearing queers…or whatever equivalent is desired.

To refuse the possibilities offered by gender creativity, as I did years ago, would be to forgo the frankness and wonder I projected onto the gender creative children a large part of me longed to be. I kept up with that blog so as to live vicariously through someone who was less afraid of making fun of gender than I was; who was more used to laying its issues bare. My time at Catholic school may not have made me a Catholic, but it did make me an agnostic who loves rules, and reading these blogs gave me an escape from the rules around gender non/-conformity that I felt I had to follow in order to gain respect.

When we understand that gender isn’t something we can simply dismiss or fold up and put away –– however rightfully we might hate it –– we might find a way of weaponizing gender against its own interests like the creative, colorful, and brilliant people we are. But first we need to find the child in ourselves and view (trans)gender norms with fresh eyes, letting go of the social expectations we so desperately cling to.

 


*Which is impossible while still using gender as a system of social management and classification, but that’s a different post.

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culturally not-too-shocking

When I was in middle school, I had a pen pal. I actually had several pen pals, but this particular pen pal was the only one who ever visited me in person. She was one year younger than me, Danish, fluent in four languages, and most importantly, willing to tolerate my pseudo-intellectual thirteen-year-old whining. She visited me in 2012, the summer before I started high school. I was, as usual, filled with anxiety as to our real-life meeting: I found myself more pleasant, more articulate, and more skilled at social interaction via text-based communication, than I ever was in-person*. My greatest fear, watching fliers from Copenhagen emerge from the terminal, was that this girl would take one look at me and regret coming to visit. That she would speak to me with words, not text, and any semblance of chemistry we may have had before would be erased.

And then she, jet-lagged and suitcase-toting, was there. My first observation was one of surprise; her hair was both longer and silkier than I had expected (in fact, it wasn’t until then that I realized I had any preconceptions as to her hair in the first place). We hugged on impulse and then once more, slowly, for the camera. Most of what I experienced around that encounter was anticipatory, rather than the result of actually seeing her. I felt the butterflies, made the “Welcome, Helene” sign, experienced stress at my own perceived inadequacies; once she actually arrived, at that one moment during which I had taken a break from holding my sign, I felt nothing in particular.

I was not thinking about Helene during my flight from Amsterdam to Boston; I rarely think of her now, as we lost touch several years ago. That said, she did cross my mind as I crossed the threshold from the terminal to the International Arrivals area. I realized that I was entering the very same area in which I stood six years ago, this time from a different angle. While waiting for Helene to meet us, my parents and I had maintained a cool distance from the door to the Arrivals area, which was loosely gated to avoid overcrowding. It was with a mix of embarrassment and satisfaction that I recognized my parents standing alone within gate’s limits this time, parked midway between the door through which I had come and the rest of the waiting crowd. No pictures were taken.

Helene, who stayed at my home for two weeks, experienced culture shock most explicitly during Fourth of July festivities and while eating her first-ever grilled cheese at a café in Mystic. The American habits of leaving one’s television on as background noise throughout the day and of taking daily showers both fascinated and concerned her. It’s very funny being the friend, family member, and/or guide of someone experiencing culture shock, as this experience forces one to look at the strangest aspects of their own culture as though they had not been inculcated with it from a young age. Although my peers and I were warned of the prospect of “reverse culture shock” prior to our return to the U.S., I did not experience culture shock so much as culture reminders.

It’s healthy, after all, to view American patriotism –– jingoism –– to the full extent of its concerning excess. This was excess I already knew of, but I was again reminded of it shortly after I deplaned. I saw more national flags –– and more propaganda imploring young travelers to join ICE or national military –– during those two hours than I had seen in over three months abroad. Going through immigration to once more enter the country was, of course, a bureaucratic nightmare, mitigated only by my whiteness and U.S. passport.

As I walked with a herd of fellow travelers toward a crowd of passport-scanning machines, we painstakingly wound through an empty maze of stanchions**. Clearly, Immigration was not content to leave such nightmarishness in the abstract. Listening to others’ complaints at the ludicrousness of taking twice as long to walk through the empty, cordoned-off area, I thought “this emblematizes perfectly the empty, illogical State (of) bureaucracy, especially as it relates to the crossing of arbitrarily-drawn borders!” (Actually, I didn’t think that at all –– I thought something more like, “How Kafkaesque, I’ll have to post it on my blog.”)

My other culture reminder was the large size and low price of beverages in the U.S. when compared to Amsterdam. When I got my much-needed cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee (in one of my refillable mugs, which happens to be at least twice the size of any cup of coffee I ever received in the Netherlands), I was momentarily overcome by awe. This was only compounded by the fact that I had not tasted true Dunkin’ coffee since January***. I had also briefly forgotten that Coolattas existed, and was fascinated by the new-to-me flavors.

The small fears around reverse culture shock that I had had prior to my arrival were lessened by the knowledge that, no matter how weird “home” felt, it would never feel as strange and new as Amsterdam or Morocco had, and I had navigated the latter two without the help of my family.

And there, my culture shock (culture-reminding?) ended. At the bottom of a quickly-drained, massive, refillable cup of my beloved, weak, hyper-sweet coffee. Unlike my experience six years ago, I was not plagued by fear that I would disappoint the people I was meeting at the airport (insert tired, overused joke about disappointing one’s parents here). The small fears around reverse culture shock that I had had prior to my arrival were lessened by the knowledge that, no matter how weird “home” felt, it would never feel as strange and new as Amsterdam or Morocco had, and I had navigated the latter two without the help of my family.

Upon arriving home, walking into my house with its predictable smell, furniture, cool-darkness, and kitchen ants, I experienced my greatest shock since my return: the utter normalcy of it all. This, I remembered, is what the rest of my wardrobe looks like. These are all of the books I had forgotten to ache for. This is how it feels to be in charge of my own heating and air-conditioning. This is life, not for two weeks or a semester but long-term. Disappointment and lack of chemistry were non-issues between myself and my home life. I’m not a guest; we’re stuck with each other.


*Arguably, this is still the case.

**Despite their ubiquity, I did not know that those things were called “stanchions” until I wrote this post.

***I bought exactly one cup of coffee from a Dutch Dunkin’ Donuts, which tasted disappointingly similar to what I might expect from a Starbucks –– not pleasant when I was looking for a specific taste quintessential to my home life.

A panoramic view of NEMO's rooftop. To the left of the image, people stand in the distance, looking out at the clear blue sky, and harbor/city buildings below us. Moving toward the right, red flowers, then pink, then orange and yellow sit in rows, and people sitting in the distance and enjoying the weather become visible.

to summer-ize

Note: It looks like I’ve properly alt-texted the header image, but let me know if the caption/alt-text description isn’t working for you. In that case, I’ll fix it as soon as possible.

Lately, I have been doing “summer things,” although it’s not exactly summer. I’ve been turning on my music or podcasts and sincerely enjoying my walks to nearby cafés, meeting with friends to talk and work together. Several days ago, a friend and I sat and people-(and dog-) watched in a park I had never before visited. Notably, that day, I was also the object of others’ people-watching: I was asked in Dutch* if I was a “boy or a girl” by a bench-sitting, middle-aged man, whose eyes took me in with a squinting suspicion. (I made no reply, instead staring for a moment in bewilderment at the multilingual cissexism I had just experienced and then continuing on my way). Yesterday, a day even better than that one because it was just a little cooler and breezier, I went with two friends to a children’s science museum in Amsterdam called the NEMO. I valiantly resisted the urge to buy a book (overpriced compared to what it would sell for at a bookstore) and a t-shirt (unnecessary and touristy) from the gift shop. Obligatory shoutout to Natalie and Nora for helping me resist my consumerist temptations and being proud of me for doing so.

We spent time on the museum’s rooftop (in the header image), which was covered in flowers which were organized by color and breed and sat in thick rows between stone indentations filled with running water. It was a busy day on the terrace, but (surprisingly) not a particularly loud one. Somehow I think all of the snaps of cameras and conversations and splashing and laughter of children in their bathing suits dispersed themselves into the breeze instead of occupying too much soundspace on the roof. Today I feel summer again: although the forecast predicted rain this afternoon, the weather is clear.

I’ve long associated summer weather with “home,” an association strongly influenced by what will be fifteen years of annual “summer vacations” from school. This feeling of “home” is accompanied by a particular collection of memories, including one of coming home from my last day of school to see the fan in the living room window, sitting in front of it, and being offered a plastic-tubed Italian Ice from the freezer. Arriving back to velvet’s apartment to open, breezy windows and a fresh, juicy pear or pair** of clementines feels an appropriate progression of that childhood memory.

At the moment, I feel homesick in the way that both longs for home and does not at all hate “here.”

At the moment, I feel homesick in the way that both longs for home and does not at all hate “here.” In fact, I like here –– the weather has been and continues to be beautiful; my free schedule allows me to read, write, and work on my research independently while also sleeping in and partaking in activities on my own terms. It’s great! But I find myself feeling similarly to the way I feel around this time when I’m at Mount Holyoke. I find myself calling my mother just to hear her voice, whereas in previous months, weeks would pass between our calls. I find myself dreaming about things I never thought I’d miss, like conversations with acquaintances I would rarely otherwise engage with.

I even miss the dewy walk to work I made on so many mornings last summer, past the series of uniformly ugly houses with plastic kids’ toys strewn around the front yard and above-ground pools in the back that neighbor my own. Past the largish patch of dirt and brown, dying grass on the corner, walled by wooden posts and plastic tape and marked by a sign as “private property, do not enter.” Across the street between the liquor store and the Taco Bell-KFC hybrid. I miss the very mainstays of my small-town, even “hick”-adjacent lifestyle that I am also so glad to have escaped. I miss the very people and things that I am also glad to have had distance from. I don’t think I’ve ever felt homesickness in such a positive, hopeful way before. The hopeful weather must be helping. To make yet another cheesy reference to my childhood, this is the weather I associate with running out and greeting at recess and promptly throwing off my coat, swinging for the first time of the year in only my t-shirt. This particular memory involves me wearing a specific polo shirt, with large color-blocks of alternating green and teal, with a small embroidered butterfly on the breast.

Some in my program, I think, feel discouraged and decidedly unfree because of the demands of their independent research or internship. I feel lucky and grateful that I don’t feel that way anymore, although the specter of a lengthy assignment due so soon overwhelmed me at first. This doubled as I acknowledged that this would be (and already is) the longest academic paper I’ve ever written (and also probably has the longest bibliography of anything I’ve ever written). Because of this, my first week of independent research time felt a bit like school in the depths of winter (particularly November; the completion of finals isn’t quite yet in sight and yet you’re feeling the weight of a semester’s exhaustion on your shoulders and you are simultaneously overworked and over-anticipating the inevitable assignment of more work) I spent time anxious and hunched over my laptop with tired, sore eyes and ears so very sick of hearing the same four recorded interviews I’m using in the project.

This is the style in which I approach work: I grind out hours early into a project as if the year is starting and there’s, I don’t know, just been a snowstorm and I’m shoveling myself out of the driveway at 6:00am***. I go in with my proverbial shovel (or laptop, in this case) and work relentlessly. My engagement in the work becomes a positive feedback loop –– I become addicted to the feeling of success, the delight and crack of energy I feel at having laid out an important point, the distinct pleasure of finding an author or journal so perfect for my bibliography, so I continue to engage and that feeling grows exponentially. I liken those to the months of frigid temperatures and numb extremities I experienced in February and some of March. I was so busy and excited and exhausted at once and all of this was reinforced by the unrelenting cold. Cold temperatures themselves have a sense of inherent activity to them: they make it so I need to be vigilant, moving, and conscious in order to survive. The warming temperatures of spring allow for a sort of passivity that winter does not. Although the weather as I began my research was not as cold as it was in February, it was significantly worse than it is now. And as it has warmed, I’ve found myself less and less “busy;” more concerned with the minutiae of my research than overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I’m expected to turn in less than three weeks from now.

I feel just a bit like I’m on vacation at this point. It’s somewhat inconvenient to feel this way at the same time that others feel least able to to vacation-y things. But at the same time, my ability to enjoy my (not-exactly) “vacation” in a more solitary way is authentic to the experiences I’ve had almost every summer prior to this. In the morning I make coffee; maybe stay in my pajamas, maybe venture to the café. Read. Write. Work on my research and answer emails. Return. Eat at a leisurely pace. Visit with friends, sometimes; run errands; take a walk. Continue to revise and write my research paper. Come back in the cool evening and, after a hot shower, engage in some combination of fiction writing and personal reading. Read the news, hoping I can stomach whatever’s going on today. This was the way my days looked last summer, peppered with work shifts and outings. Producing this creative rhythm is as fun as actually engaging in it, making early-summer days some of the most…dare I say…lekker. When I get sick of this particular rhythm, I’ll be on a plane home. When I’m sick of my home-rhythm, I’ll have the fall semester to look forward to.

There are parts of knowing I’m leaving soon that are more bitter than sweet. I feel some frustration at myself for only recently exploring some beautiful study spots close to the apartment. I can’t help but laugh as I realize that it’s now, as I look toward leaving Amsterdam, that I can finally navigate the spaces within walking distance of the apartment and those within walking distance of SIT without Google Maps. The first time I walked from the apartment to the building where we took Dutch (different from the general SIT office building) using landmarks and common sense rather than my phone was one of our last days of Dutch class. Yesterday, when I had to take the tram to Central Station in order to get to the NEMO museum, it occurred to me that this was one of the first times –– if not the first time –– that I had used the tram without feeling intense anxiety. I think that the me that wrote about unfamiliarity several months ago would have taken the present shift as an indication that I was beginning to truly feel at home here, or something equally warm and fuzzy. I’m generally comfortable here and like the city. I’m glad to be here and even more glad to be familiar enough to enjoy it. But feeling the beginnings of summer here has led me to an observation: I can be familiar with a place, I can enjoy it, I can even make myself comfortable there, but it doesn’t need to be my home.

I’m generally comfortable here and like the city. I’m glad to be here and even more glad to be familiar enough to enjoy it. But feeling the beginnings of summer here has led me to an observation: I can be familiar with a place, I can enjoy it, I can even make myself comfortable there, but it doesn’t need to be my home.

I think I wrote previously on how I (ironically) tend to fall into the trap of thinking in binaries. I’ve learned recently that one binary I put faith in was that between Home (a comforting space I knew fairly well) and Not-Home (an uncomfortable space I do not know well). I was approaching Amsterdam like the guy on the bench who openly asked me my gender.

Are you Home or Not-Home, Amsterdam? Am I allowed to feel familiar, comfortable, and homesick at the same time? Amsterdam looks back at me with the silent bewilderment and disappointed humor with which I looked at that man. So, in this between-spring-and-summer weather, in this not-quite vacation period that feels quite like it, in this space of simultaneous homesickness and pleasure; of familiarity and distance…I sit. Troubling binaries, as per usual.


*I was pretty proud of myself to have understood this, given how bad I am at Dutch in general.

**The latest story I’ve been working on involves subtle wordplay, not the har-har punny kind I use to annoy/endear myself to others, but the kind that makes good quality poetry and prose fun to read, like a puzzle of words it’s satisfying to snap in place. It’s not like I’m good at this, but I do enjoy having fun with language without immaturely nudging-and-winking every time.

***To further expose myself as a weak, sensitive noodle of a(n aspiring) writer-academic, I’ll admit this: I’ve never actually shoveled a driveway.

hey, you!

I’ll be flying home exactly one month from today. At the moment, of course, I’m glad to be here and not there –– after all, it’s been in the 60ºs F in Amsterdam these past few days, whereas I hear it’s down in the 40ºs F back home. Spring is here; I’ve traded classes for independent research; I can sleep in and make my own schedule. I’ve explored several cafés, and as I sit in one now, podcast on, laptop out and iced coffee next to me, I feel a little like I’m in Thirsty Mind. If I squint. And if I ignore that, unlike an American café, the one I’m currently sitting in would be happy to serve me a completely legal glass of wine.

Most of this month will be devoted to my independent research project, with a significant portion of the remaining time going into my own reading and writing (and hopefully catching up on rapidly-building store of unaddressed social media notifications). Either way, I am looking forward to –– and already enjoying! –– my present situation of increased anonymity. All of a sudden, I’m not (always) the foolish American tourist, staring bug-eyed at my surroundings: this area, at least, has become a familiar neighborhood. I’m not a member of an obnoxious, English-speaking mass of college students following behind an apologetic pair of guides. I’m not the top-left corner of every assignment I type and submit, I’m not a hand raised in class, I’m not the object of someone’s address if I don’t want to be. It’s a great relief not to be trapped in the same rooms in the same office space on the same street, five days a week. Frankly, it’s liberating not to be spoken to so much.

I’m not sure how to cleanly segue from those opening paragraphs to my central topic, so I’ll just lead in with an anecdote. In one of our group’s last Dutch classes, the professor mistakenly called me “Charlie.” I looked at him for a moment after he said that, and in that moment he smacked his face and said, “Sarah!” The whole room laughed, including me. It was actually a pretty mundane experience: I forget or mix up peoples’ names all the time, and am especially understanding when others do it because I’m awful at remembering names. But the experience of having been accidentally called a name significantly more androgynous than my own was significant in that it was guilt-inducingly titillating. The laughter quieted and I asked a couple of times to the group at large, to no concrete response: “Charlie? Do I look like a Charlie? Do I look like someone whose name is Charlie? Does it suit me?”

After class, my friend asked me if I was “okay” and I was surprised at the question. Given that I hadn’t been misgendered (not in that instance, anyway) or deadnamed (I’m Sarah and always have been) I was confused as to why I wouldn’t have been okay. I’m not going to try to parrot the whole conversation we had (one that I hope continues, Mia, if you’re reading this!) but I did tell them this: “I mean, maybe if he would have called me a…a ‘girl name,’ (you know) I might have been hurt, but, you know…”

You know? I know. I know that, instead of speaking directly about gender and womanhood and once-girlhood and Sarahness*, I make so many euphemisms that I barely understand myself. Truthfully, whenever I am identified, I’m placed in the shadow of my name (and also with the girlhood I used to live). Sarah isn’t one of those “girly things” I can escape with hormones or surgery or a shaved head or boys’ clothes. I remember frustratedly covering up my name tag at my place of work last summer, not because my name itself caused me pain but rather because I did not want to be marked as a woman when I would otherwise have been seen as ambiguous.

And then there are the pressures and expectations placed upon me precisely because I move through trans and gender-nonconforming spaces. This has increased in the past year, since I began an on-and-off relationship with varying dosages of testosterone and since I began seriously pursuing a bilateral mastectomy with ultimate success. When I am insistently asked for my preferred name, I feel a sense of violation that it’s hard to articulate in words. It is as if I am being told that I could be trans, if only it weren’t for that pesky, girly name. What do they expect, “Sam”? It seems the most convenient. When I was in fourth grade, I distinctly remember having a conversation with my then-friend about what our names would be “if we were boys.” Her name was easily masculinizable. Mine was not. We both found that irritating.

Irritating, too, is having to think fast in the minutes before top surgery. I get up to pee one last time. A nurse asks, “Sarah? Have you thought about your new name yet?” I say, heart pounding, “Not yet.” I mean: I have been waiting so fucking long to get these things sawed off of my chest and you had better not see through this boldfaced lie and deny it to me now.

Unlike the breasts, my name is still attached to me, and I quite like it there. What I don’t like is, as I previously mentioned, the marking that comes with it. It is a reality that, under patriarchy, women are marked; men are the genderless “blank slate.” This is why we have both “astronauts” and “woman astronauts.” However, this marking is why I stubbornly cling to “Sarah” and don’t intend to quit. Charlie is a name that I think suits me (better than “Sam” does, anyway) and maybe I’ll even try it out at a Starbucks or two, plunging my chin deep into my high-buttoned flannel, widening my stance. Pulling the dude-ish affect. But to me, my name is a reverent acknowledgement of the womxn** who are both my personal and my political priority. It’s a token of my appreciation to my parents, who have named and nicknamed and loved me with “(Sar)ah”. When I say the name, the word, Sarah, I feel like the sun finding its place in the center of some landscape painting. I have never felt so attached to my name than I have since I “came out” as “openly” trans, whatever that means.

I’ll admit that I went through a brief identity crisis in the days following the Charlie incident –– do I want strangers to call me Charlie? Do I want to change my name altogether? Names are unique identifiers, as important to the people doing the addressing as those being addressed. Others’ investment in my supposed womanhood when I’m “Sarah” and in the supposed necessity of some name change when I’m “Trans Person” illustrate just how much more important my name is to everyone other than myself. If, at this moment, I were to relinquish my autonomy and take up “Sam” or “Charlie,” I would be violating my own personal desires and convictions. I might be (mis)interpellated as a Sarah-woman or as a non-Sarah-non-woman, but these are and will remain false ascriptions that are a result of an oppressive system of gender. My choices are not simply “be a girl with a girl name” or “be a trans with a trans name.”  After all, that’s a binary. We all know binaries are rigid and oppressive. C’mon, we’ve been over this!

Unfortunately, I’m not going to spew those preceding paragraphs at every person who makes some name-related false assumption about me. Plus, there is so much more I have yet to unpack regarding my name, gender, and personal identity that couldn’t possibly fit into one or many blog post(s). Luckily, this month, I can be a researcher. I might be anonymizing my subjects, but I am also becoming a bit more anonymous: suddenly, I’m a person behind a laptop, and not always a name on a roster or a person introducing themself to a stranger. I’m still here and I’m still Sarah, but this will hopefully be a month of increased alone-time, my last Amsterdam-hurrah, when I can be trans Sarah without contestation.


*Instead of that phrase, I initially wanted to write “this sort of thing” and then I came to my senses.

**Non-men? People of an oppressed class under patriarchy? The nebulously-gendered contingent of people who get nervous going out at night? There’s no good term to refer to the group of people I’m trying to refer to, but those who do fall into that category tend to know they (we) belong to it.

*** Interpellation / Misinterpellation are Louis Althusser’s terms. Here’s a good (and dense) reading about them.

the word “march” has many meanings

I was surprised to see Uncle Sam at the Amsterdam “March for Our Lives” solidarity gathering. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been –– the dry, dying grass of our crumbling imperialist hellscape is always greener from Europe, right? For expats, I can only assume this to be even truer –– I suppose, after years away from “home,” it can become easy to confuse a longing for Target’s welcoming bullseye with the desire to to get emotional about the Declaration of Independence. Or something. Or, perhaps, I’m still giving them too much credit.

So, the March –– which, for the record, was not actually a march but a gathering in a park adjacent to the U.S. Consulate building –– took place on Saturday the 24th of March, as others around the world did the same. I was, and am, glad I went: it was heartening to see the proportion of people under eighteen who were there rivaling overall adult turnout. Most of the speakers were teenagers; all are praiseworthy for their courage and eloquence, particularly a blonde fourteen-year-old who I could only describe (at the risk of sounding glib) as “spunky.” Needless to say, she sported a denim vest, assorted pin-back buttons adorning the front, over her “March for Our Lives” t-shirt.

Cool teenagers aside, one of the organizers –– a trim white woman in her fifties who had the look of someone who hand-knitted pussy hats and worshipped at the altar of Elizabeth Warren* –– helped my brief experience at the gathering to be disappointing from the start. She went up to the mic at around 2:00, the scheduled start time. She thanked the police for “protecting the people” and “making sure everyone had a safe protest experience.” She then encouraged American expat attendees to sign up to vote, at which time they could also pose for pictures with the aforementioned Uncle Sam character.

An adult speaker whose speech closely followed this woman’s used “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as its centerpiece. Most ironically, in addition to the Declaration of Independence, she took the Constitution as American gospel. The Constitution is, has been, and will continue to be demonstrably complicit in the U.S.’s colonialist, white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchial (yadda, yadda, you all know the rest) order. Although it appears to be a misconception that the Second Amendment was ratified solely to permit the existence of slave patrols, it was still an amendment that applied only to adult, property-owning, white men. It was still phrased in a way that did not permit individual black people to own firearms. It is still conveniently abandoned by “frightened” police officers when they decide to open fire on innocent black bodies; it was still only able to be restricted when the Black Panthers assembled their armed militia.

We were, after being pumped full of bizarrely patriotic rhetoric, reminded that we needed to leave the area by 3:00. There was another gathering authorized to happen at that time. I wondered if the schedule of legal, safe, non-combative protests for the day was up in someone’s office break room, right between the dirty Keurig and the recycling bin, perhaps attached to the communal refrigerator.

“Now for some chants! What’s a protest without chants?” The adults in charge of this thing seemed far too giggly given that we were protesting the U.S. government’s complicity in the murder of schoolchildren. She led us in some chants. I felt almost embarrassed –– perhaps we were doing this because of the high proportion of under-eighteens present, but I felt like I was acting out a puppet show of how to “peacefully protest” instead of actually, uh, protesting. This feeling was only amplified when we concluded our gathering, and were beckoned to a nearby hill to take a group picture that was sure to be, as the trim white woman in her fifties said, “Instagram-worthy.” I yearned for Jean Baudrillard’s counsel on all of this mess, but instead, I went for coffee with Isabel (which was delightful in it’s own right!).

This gathering, protest, whatever it was (or, laments Baudrillard, inevitably appears to be but in fact is not) evoked a number of conflicting emotions in me. My overwhelming takeaway from my hour standing in mild, 50ºF weather, cornily chanting and taking an occasional picture, was that this gathering was not necessarily empty of purpose but rather had the wrong purpose. This, I feel, can be dangerous given the number of kids that were there. Before I explain that further, I want to note that the primary happy emotion I felt throughout the rally was hope for ~the next generation~**. The sheer number of young people (particularly kids under twelve) present was heartening. Knowing that they knew what an AR-15 was when they were years from fifteen themselves made my heart seize. Seeing their energy and willingness to take time out of their day to demonstrate made it relax, just a little.

That being said, I do think that there is a danger in normalizing these (in)actions as what a protest is, and even more of a danger in framing this as what a protest should be. It would have been far more honest to call this a solidarity gathering or even a vigil, both of which are real and essential parts of grieving lives lost to politicized violence. If a protest is authorized by the authorities, who and what, exactly, are you protesting? If your protest wraps up in a timely manner so that the next scheduled event can take place, if your protest inconveniences no one, what is its purpose outside of making individuals feel more socially progressive? There was an atmosphere of faith in the American political system, despite the system (and its white male beneficiaries) being responsible for the very horrors they protested. Meanwhile, vote! Vote! Surely salvation from the present systems of power and violence lies in the system installed by powerful! My only hope is that those kids who continue to participate in this sort of thing realize the true scope of possibilities under the umbrella of “protest,” not just the G-rated kind.

I’m not going to rant anarchist-ly (that’s an adverb I’m saying is real now, because the real-fake-word-binary is socially constructed) anymore (in this post). I have several other interesting stories from the past week that I’m interested in sharing, but I’m going to keep the contents of this particular post focused on the March. All my love to the people of Florida, of Maryland, and to all those affected by gun violence who remain invisible.


*This was meant to be more observational than mocking. She fits neatly into a very specific breed of 40-60-year-old trim white women who have probably canvassed for the Democratic Party at least four times. They all have that voice, too, you know? Kind of Midwestern, a little like they’re chewing on something. In spite of myself, I find it rather comforting, in much the same way I’m sure they find their recent decision to only purchase organic fruit.

**Is nineteen old enough to start talking about the next generation? Do I get to consider “gen Z” kids as youngsters? No clue. But the spunky fourteen-year-old (b. 2004) who spoke at the gathering referred to 9/11 as a historical event in the same breath as the Vietnam War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although I (b. 1998) don’t actually remember 9/11, I still “feel old.”

live(ish)! from morocco

As the Wifi has been shoddy at every hotel since our group’s arrival in Morocco, I debated postponing this blog post until after we return to Amsterdam. I decided, however, to post from here anyway: we have the afternoon free (a welcome change from our week-and-a-half of jam-packed days and hours spent crammed into a bus), I’m in my hotel room with Lorde’s Homemade Dynamite playing, and I have on the wonderful rainbow-colored cotton pants I purchased in Rabat. These seem like ideal conditions for blog-posting. Also, there’s something cool about being able to say I posted on my blog from Africa, which is the fourth continent I have visited.

I’ve had bits and pieces of this post floating through my head on many a long bus ride, and although I’ve written some of those bits and pieces in Notes or attempted alone to commit them to memory, it’s difficult to contemplate my experiences, perceptions, and revelations while in the midst of the action. Even if that action just consists of holding my breath as our bus barrels down bumpy roads populated by unruly taxis and frighteningly adventurous pedestrians.

To preface this post, I want to mention a huge (and prejudiced) concern I had at the very beginning of my study abroad adventure. I was very afraid of being visibly gender-nonconforming (GNC) in Morocco, whose stereotypes had been (and likely still are) embedded in me. I carried in my pocket a basic set of assumptions about Morocco –– orientalist concepts of repression, “backwardness”, and intolerance distinct to nations like this one, which are non-Western and majority-Muslim. I wondered what the consequences of my apparent deviation from gender roles. I quickly learned how unfounded and frankly, stupid my concerns were. I think I get more open stares in my majority-white, culturally Catholic American hometown area than I do here. I’ve worn “boy’s” clothes and “girl’s” clothes; shorts and jeans, short sleeves and jackets, and haven’t noticed any particular mis/treatment based on my appearance. In fact, one of the few consistent aspects of our excursion here –– apart from its very inconsistency! –– has been the kindness of the people here toward myself and our group (despite our obnoxiously-Americanness!). I want to make this point about my experience as a GNC person clear from the start to clear up potential misconceptions and fears. Yeah, you’ll be “sir’d” and “ma’am’d” and people are going to wish you well in a cis-heteronormative fashion, but if your experience is anything like mine, you’re not going to feel unsafe.

Here is something that did and does make me feel unsafe: the roads. Specifically, the driving. The traffic. On our first night here, after ten p.m. after a late flight in from Amsterdam, I made the (poor) decision to sit near the front of our group’s bus. Usually, the front of the bus is the chill place where less action happens. This was patently untrue that night. I spent the entire ride terrified for my life, terrified for the safety of the bus and the group, and most of all, terrified for several pedestrians and scooter-riders we came dangerously close (in my opinion) to hitting. These fears were exacerbated by the fact that I was exhausted, irritated, and unaccustomed to Moroccan perceptions of time, which tend to be far more fluid than my own rigid view. This is still something I am not used to, and is likely something that I’ll never be used to. Despite my firm belief in time as a social construction and my disbelief in the teleological, when I hear something is going to start at 7:30, I’m waiting expectantly at 7:26.

Our first few days in Morocco were, more than anything else, beautiful. I mentioned this on Instagram, but it bears repeating: upon visiting Hassan II Mosque, I felt the need to shout “thank you!” to the structure itself just for being so incredibly beautiful. I’ll include some pictures below. Words can’t do it justice. If I were God, I’d be thrilled that my people were building me such a stunning house.

When not sightseeing, shopping, or sleeping, we spent much of our first week in Morocco in class. We got the chance to visit the building in which the SIT students in Morocco study; I even got to give a quick hug to Jamesa, a fellow MHC student who is doing a Morocco SIT program this semester (although I wish we had gotten more of a chance to catch up!). The one lecture from that week that my mind keeps returning to involved a discussion of the fight for land rights in Morocco and the accompanying actions taken by rural woman activists.

As we drove from city to city, the gentrification afflicting Morocco became apparent; in that lecture we were also taught of the rise of the suburbs as a place of wealth and privilege. Rural/Indigenous feminists are seeking to gain some autonomy over once-communal land that’s now being privatized (with the help of a U.S. corporation). Their neoliberal counterparts just want a piece of the privatized pie (if you will) without regard to the importance of the shared aspects of the land and its bounty. Typical! In keeping with worldwide intra-feminist conflicts, liberation-based feminist (most of whom are multiply-marginalized) butt heads with (relatively) privileged, “rights-based” state feminists. As we stay in Marrakesh, our last and most touristy city in Morocco, I’m also considering my own part in these issues as an American tourist.

Perhaps the most frustrating (albeit unsurprising) aspect of this trip has been in relation to my veganism and vegan options at hotels and restaurants. Between general cultural misunderstanding and language barriers, it’s definitely been difficult for myself and my servers to communicate on food options. Shockingly, the first food I ate in Morocco was quite bland and (thus) disappointing –– our Casablanca hotel served the group plates of unseasoned vegetables, beans, and (for others) tuna and perhaps some other meat or cheese. There was little else they could make for us at eleven p.m.! Near the beginning of our visit, we went to a restaurant that (according to others) served great pizza, but whose few (modified) vegan options were quite disgusting. Fortunately, the food at the Rabat SIT location and at many of the restaurants and hotels we have been to since has been fantastic, despite the several-times-daily ordeal of explaining and then double and triple-checking the contents of the dishes being served.

I do briefly want to highlight the fresh produce here in Morocco, particularly the oranges. These oranges are so sweet and delicious that they taste otherworldly. The tomatoes here are good enough for me to freely consume them like apples (the apples themselves here are also great). This is the first place I’ve ever been where I have eaten the cucumber and not been disgusted by it. I have also eaten 200% more steamed artichoke since being here than I had in my whole life prior to this (I have eaten exactly two entire steamed artichokes since my arrival).

There are enough other things, big and small, that I could write pages about here, but I think I’m going to conclude this post now. I could write about the group’s ill-fated attempts to access hotel pools in Beni Mellal (it was drained for the season and filled only at its deepest end with several inches of dirty leftover water) and here in Marrakesh (according to others, it’s filled but freezing cold). I could attempt to explain the mountains, field, plateaus, and other stunning natural sites that surround/ed us. But it seems trite to try to sum up this experience, which I am still having, in a post or series of posts.

Instead, I’ve made the decision to drop some random anecdotes and reflections here, gazing pointedly at my navel as I do so, and call it a day. Hope you like it –– and who knows, later on, you might see some more (belated) Morocco reflections. For now, I’m going to sit back and hope the Wifi is good enough at the moment to publish this post.

vulnerable

My course of study for this semester abroad and beyond necessarily involve people and communities deemed “vulnerable”. Sometimes, deemed “too vulnerable” to work with. Sometimes, there is a possibility that I might be subsumed under this category –– when I use theory as a way to understand my experiences in therapy, in the hospital, in the midst of what we call a meltdown or a crisis –– is that marriage of theory and reality available for academic consumption?

Increasingly, organizations will say “no.” This is deeply ironic, given the long, storied history of exploitation experienced by vulnerable/vulnerablized subjects. Although exploitation might primarily be in service of entertainment, labor, or sex, it can also centrally benefit academia. Since being here and confronting the specter of the approval board which will judge the acceptability of my own proposed project, I find myself at an ideological impasse.

I guess I could say I am of two minds. I’ll lay out my dilemma here:

1) I know that amplifying the voices of unheard subjects requires those subjects to speak for themselves and often to identify themselves as they speak. When I want to write about a struggle that effects/affects (to use the insufferable academic tendency!) me, being forced to make my experience abstract denies me the agency to be honest….about the very ways in which I am and have been denied agency before. Disabled people are denied agency via infantilization: like infants, we are too vulnerable to be seen, too immature to be listened to, and too weak or untrustworthy to take control of our own narratives.

2) But any academic project on marginalized groups runs an inherent risk of exploitation: even when the academic themself is a member of one of those groups. Hell, there seems to be a growing trend within academia as well as the creative writing community writ large to exploit one’s own trauma in order to be original enough for publishing. These narratives and studies are important, for sure, but we have gotten into the habit of ripping out our hearts for publishers in the hopes of some meager compensation. I’m guilty of this, and for the past few days have been thinking particularly hard about the relationship between art, pain, vulnerability, and ~the academy~. With that in mind, as well as the historical context I cite at the bottom of this post, we always need to take extra care when representing ourselves and others when at its core, we are representing vulnerability. Don’t be white savior Barbie. Don’t dredge up every point of pain you have barely confronted yourself, either, and turn it into poetry or smooth critique.

Now, back to my situation. I hope to center the voices of self-identified disabled LGBTQ+ individuals (for lack of a better term) in my semester research project, and thus have experienced warnings as to the dangers of trying to interview disabled subjects ethically. This, I was told, would be particularly challenging when it came to subjects who were intellectually / psychosocially disabled. In tandem with this I was told I should definitely limit my subject-scope to people eighteen and over. Children were a similarly difficult group to obtain consent from. To this I nodded my head very sanely and considered all of the situations in which I would and would not be deemed a suitable subject for my own project.

Staying home from class yesterday allowed me to look at a paper I downloaded weeks ago but theretofore hadn’t read: Political and educational springboard or straitjacket? Theorizing post/human subjects in an age of vulnerability by Kathryn Ecclestone and Daniel Goodley (2014). A real mouthful! It addresses the conflict between material/psychological vulnerability in subjects (and the need address these with radical compassion & work to change) and the tendency that psycho-medicine has when talk of such vulnerabilities rises to the surface: namely, the tendency to individualize and pathologize said vulnerabilities and try to “fix” them without challenging the system that creates them.

I, like many, am caught between a materialist acknowledgement of socially-enforced “precarity” (Judith Butler’s term, cited by Ecclestone & Goodley) and the knowledge that it would be dishonest to try to improve material conditions and not critique & deconstruct the system that creates them in the first place.

In synthesizing this blog post, I’ve been reminded of the dangers of conflating vulnerability (which colloquially implies some individual “weakness”) with precarity (which references the social conditions that lead to one’s vulnerablization). This distinction will be helpful in elaborating the challenges I experience as I attempt to conduct qualitative research, but will not fully solve this long-standing conflict within me. Amplification and exploitation do not exist in a binary, nor does anything else. They’re subject to judgement based on their context, interpretation, and ultimate implications. The impasse remains, although I’m more clear now on the exact details of my problem than I was prior to typing this out.

So, what am I supposed to do now? Do I seek a “legitimate” method to share the voices of intellectually and psychosocially disabled people, the latter of whom are commonly referred to as “mentally ill”? Do I abandon institutional academic paths to legitimacy and acknowledge that justice will only be served to us when structures like academia, medicine, psychiatry, and state are abolished entirely? In reality, the “solution” I find to this will likely be interviews with “good disabled people” accompanied by a scathing critique of the system that limits the radical potential of my work. I will both follow the “rules” and make clear that academia itself is culpable in the exploitation and vulnerablization of people like me. But there are only so many critiques and papers I will be able to write like this without also doing something more.

Alright, now that I’ve used far too many sets of scare quotes and now that “vulnerable” doesn’t even look like a word anymore, I’m going to end the post. Happy Friday and just a reminder: the next time I update this, I’ll be in Morocco!

 


Citations and further reading, complete with links!

Performativity, Precarity, and Sexual Politics by Judith Butler

Political and educational springboard or straitjacket? Theorizing post/human subjects in an age of vulnerability by Kathryn Ecclestone and Daniel Goodley

I’m also indebted to disability scholar Margaret Price for the use of the term “psychosocial disability” in lieu of “mental illness” or “psychiatric disorder”.