Elegy for an Old-school Transsexual

From Philosophy Tube’s video “Queer”:

But what about a word like queer? To a lot of people, it’s actually a slur. A way of saying somebody who deserves what’s coming to them. To activists and academics doddling around in the 90s, it was a word they could use to reclaim their agency.

If slurs can be reclaimed, what about identifiers that aren’t slurs but came out of a tradition that we never want to return to? Buck Angel once tweeted a complaint about a picture declaring that the word “transsexual” has been deprecated. Why are many trans people so emphatic about want to deprecate “transsexual”? Well, to explain that I’m going to need to do the only thing I hate more than cite actual sources: tell a personal anecdote.

In the endnotes to her video “the Aesthetic”, Contrapoints describes her goal of depicting a “trans mom” experience with someone who is willing to privately sidestep the hugbox and divulge pragmatic MtF wisdom over tea. And this caught my attention because at the time I had been going through a vaguely parallel experience of my own. For Contrapoints, her trans mom relationship may have been someone teaching her how to walk in heels. Well, mine taught me something different.

During the year before the Aesthetic came out, I had been going to a trans support group. The first night was frustrating. If I’m being honest every night was frustrating. The group focused on a specific type of ritualized non-judgmental sharing, and while I recognize that type space is extremely important for some people, it wasn’t the right place for me. I was trying to find a way to navigate the contradiction between the need to transition and transitioning being the most terrifying security violation of my life, so I felt I needed tools to keep me safe. I needed, shall we say, pragmatic MtF wisdom. For the most part, this group just didn’t offer that, but there was one exception.

It was a trans 101 room, a place for beginners, but “Karen” stood out because she very obviously was not a beginner. Had she been anywhere else I would have never pegged her as trans, and believe me, I’m a bit compulsively perceptive of that sort of thing. I distinctly remember her getting reprimanded for assuming a transitioner would want to get facial hair removal by the transmasc moderator of a group full of prospective transfemmes. It was the only moment that night where someone offered a practical “how.”

Months later I went back, and I was braver this time. Shared a story about how I had been processing some stuff, and several people came up and thanked me for it at the end of the night. “Karen” was one of those people. She was very flattering, and invited me to a separate support group she was running. I told her I might be interested, so she gave me her business card and directions on how to get there.

The next week I decided to go. I desired direction and maybe “Karen” could offer it. When I entered the room, “Karen” was the only person there. No one else showed up. The entire night it was just the two of us.

“Karen” didn’t end up being all that helpful. She mostly wanted to reminisce about her past, with a special focus on how the other support group had been better in the 80s. Each week had been a different workshop for learning how to perfect your womanhood. To refine your deportment. Over the years the group had lost its way — half full of mannish caricatures of femininity and the rest a frivolous social club for mostly AFAB non-binary individuals — but I was different, she assured me. She complimented me a lot. In a dark way, those will probably be the most indisputably honest compliments I will ever receive

See, the flow of hierarchy in trans spaces is convoluted, but for some transfemmes it begins and ends with passing. “Karen” saw passing as a meritocracy, and only respected those who put in the effort. But behind that supposed meritocracy hides the classism of favoring who can afford clothes, makeup, and surgery. It hides the racism in how we favor the types of faces that we culturally stereotype as soft over those we stereotype as hard. It hides the cruel reality of the simple genetic lottery. She had no time for any of those people, but she did, inexplicably, have time for me.

That favor was fickle. There were moments throughout the night where I’d bring up not wanting to dress especially femme or expressing doubt about the importance of a particular surgery. During these moments she’d get a quick look of disappointment on her face, only to quickly return to look of veiled concern, like she was determined to lead a wayward sheep back to the flock. At the end of the night she handed me a pile of papers from the stacks of transition literature. Huge stacks full of handouts reserved for all the other people who never showed up. For some reason I never threw them away. This one about the transitioning roadmap might have been a red flag had I known then what I know now.

It contained helpful information like how you needed to change your apartment to “look more feminine, remove posters of NHRA nationals, and such, and replace them with nature scene paintings or pictures.” And that you should “remove books, movies, and other things that are trans related, so visitors don’t automatically know you’re trans.” Instead “subscribe to women’s magazines like Vogue, Cosmo, Women’s Health, not to just put on your coffee table, but to give you tips about being a modern woman.”

With this context in mind, I want to to Julie Serano’s The Whipping Girl, or at least an excerpt from twitter because the internet has killed my ability to read anything not formatted as a million angry fragments of 280 characters or less. It was posted by twitter user Queer Kara with the message “I will not be explaining why using the word transsexual in 2019 is not a good look.” So I’ll give it a try for the both us. Hope I don’t fuck it up.

So anyway, Julie Serano, speaking about the attitudes of the medical establishment during Karen’s good old days:

Canonical writings on transsexuality also argued that, for transsexuals embarking on their transitions a “change in geographical location is almost mandatory,” and that “continued association with an employer … should be terminated so as to avoid any embarrassment to the employer.” Regarding family, gatekeepers suggested, “Young children are better told that their parents are divorcing and that Daddy will be living far away and probably unable to see them.” At every turn the gatekeepers prioritized their concern for the feelings of cissexuals who were related to, or acquainted with, the transsexual over the trans person.

The gatekeepers’ requirement that transsexuals so completely hide their trans status created innumerable obstacles for trans people: the shame and self-loathing that is associated with living in the closet; having to cut off relationships with family and friends, thus eliminating any possible social support system they may have had previously; having to look for a new job, in a new location, without being able to reference their past employment history and while continuing to pay the therapy and medical bills necessary to complete their transition — all of this on top of having to navigate through the world in their identified gender for the first time. Because of the combination of all of these stresses, it was not uncommon for transsexuals to become highly depressed or suicidal post-transition. Often, gatekeepers would assume that such problems stemmed from the transsexual’s own gender issues rather than from the closeted and isolated lives they were forced to lead.

Interlude:

This may strike thy ear as somewhat peculiar, but I still think on that creature from the abyss that prayed upon me.
My faculties were far from lucid, but I quite clearly sensed certain emotions.
A wrenching nostalgia, a lost joy, an object of obsession, and a sincere hope to reclaim it.
Could these thoughts belong to the beast from the abyss?
But if that were true, then perhaps it was no beast after all.

I ran into “Karen” again the following week. Except she didn’t recognize me. Said it was the chemo. See, she was a cancer survivor. Still alive to this day, or at least last year. I know this because that business card she gave me listed her personal website, which still looks like something fresh out of late 90’s geocities by the way. It says she last updated it in mid-2019 to put up a “Biden for President” banner.

Anyway, I learned some other things sneaking through her digital shrine. Like how she had recently been forcibly retired from her job and was looking for but struggling to find gigs. Might have been that this job search was more for an excuse to be social than any kind of pressing need for money. It’s hard to tell one way or the other. I also found a page she made for her best friend, possibly her only close friend. At least, she never mentioned any others to me. They had met back in the 80s at the same trans support group that I had met her. Of course there’s no mention on the website of where they met — she wouldn’t want visitors to know about that — so I had to piece that together with what she had told me during our in-person conversations.

The two of them lived a whole life together. They began their transitions at roughly the same time. Saw each other weekly at the support group. Worked together tirelessly to refine their gender performances. Eventually moved in together. Went through chemo together. Except her friend didn’t make it. The friend’s page was a memorial.

And now, with no one else in the world, this lonely soul haunts the support group. The only place she can still remember. The only place she’s ever had. Wishing she could forget its current inhabitants and have it be restored to its former glory. Recalling tales to the semi-passing newcomers of a time when obedient old-school transsexuals worked tirelessly at properly integrating into polite society through a ritual sacrifice of any part of ourselves that might reveal the lie. Trading a broad form of ostracism for a subtler, more insidious one.

I can’t imagine the support group nights are very fulfilling for her, and I suspect that she’d rather just be spending a night together alone at home with her friend, reminiscing about the good old days, just the two of them. Except now there’s only one.

So yeah, “Karen” was the last of our “old-school transsexuals.” An abuse victim of a tradition of shame and isolation that she was still compulsively passing on to her descendants in a cross-generational ritual of self harm. In a weird way, she was an elder I looked up to, who I wish to memorialize. Except, I want to remember her not as someone to emulate, but as a tragic monument to an inhumane tradition that we must always remember, no matter how much we wish we could forget it.