Friday, April 13, 2012

Leave the Driving to Us

For reasons that will be of no interest to anyone I was recently motivated to review my position on transgender issues. I think it is wise to periodically reassess your positions on social and political issues to make sure they still make sense to the person you are today with all of the new experiences and knowledge that you have acquired since your last review. Of course, doing this can take you down some interesting side streets and alleys. So be careful.

I understand the idea of feeling like you were “born in the wrong body". But, it really is just a feeling. My own approach to this feeling would not be to change the body, but to change the feeling. Do I mean that if you were born a boy and you think you should have been a girl that you should make yourself like Star Wars or Monday Night Football? No. You should accept that you are a boy that likes girly things. You shouldn't chop off your penis and use it to fashion a handbag to hold your lipstick.

Why should I even get to weigh in on this? I was born a girl who likes girly things. Full stop.

I’ll tell you why: because I was born a girl who likes girly things and who looks Asian. For good reason. I am Asian. Half anyway. And for a while, I wished I did not look Asian. I never wanted to stop being Asian. I just wished it weren’t so physically obvious because I didn’t feel Asian. But because of the way I looked there was an expectation on the part of everyone (yes, everyone) that I would bring some level of Asianness to the table.

I didn’t. There was nothing particularly Asian about my upbringing. We didn’t speak Vietnamese. We didn’t eat Vietnamese food. We didn’t hang with any other Vietnamese people. We didn’t do much Vietnamesing of any kind. My mom didn’t talk about Viet Nam much and didn’t try to impress upon us anything about the culture or tradition. I identified strongly with my Irish heritage. I felt closer to that tradition and those people.

I could have rejected my Asian appearance. I could have had that funky eyelid surgery to get a more “eye-shaped” eye with a well-defined crease. I could have made my nose less flat and more pert. I could have dyed my hair red and gotten a perm.

I actually did get a perm once in college. Let’s not.

If I had done that I could have avoided a lot of situations that were awkward, annoying or just plain asinine. Like the relentless teasing from the thug at the end of the street. My being or looking Asian was pivotal to all of his ridiculous jeers up to and including the time I had my leg casted after a soccer injury and he shouted to me from across the schoolyard, “What happened, Rice? Ya get yer leg blown off in ‘Nam?”

Sidebar: when I told my parents about this at dinner that night. They shared the exact same reaction. Their eyebrows shot up into their hair (or not-hair in the case of my bald father) and they quickly looked down at their plates and didn’t say a word. This was weird. Then they both started quivering around the shoulders. Then they both started laughing. Hard. That kid was a jerk and I hated him. Still do. But, yeah, that one was kind of funny.

Certain responses could have dropped out of my lexicon entirely. Such as these:

“No, I don’t know karate.”

“No, I don’t know your cousin’s wife from Korea.”

“Yes, that’s my biological dad. Yes, I’m sure.”

“No, I don’t want to be your best friend so that you can tell all your other easily impressed friends about your new Asian best friend.”

But I would have missed out on a lot. Like the time I met a friend’s mother for the first time and she got right up into my face and shouted, “HELLO! DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” Seeing the look of horror on his face was a priceless moment. As were all the tiny gasps from around the room. I simply said, “Yes.” But I was thinking, “This. Is. Awesome.”

Or the time the Vietnamese girl doing my nails told me that I shouldn’t marry my fiancĂ© because he was white and I needed to marry my own kind. I told "Tiffannee" that this strategy would pretty much limit me to my brother given my particular ethnic mix. I added that I did not think he would be cool with that so I was going to go ahead and marry the white guy.

And I would have missed out on the time that I spent a day on a Greyhound bus between Detroit and Muncie and at some point in the journey a grizzly looking fella with a bushy beard boarded the bus and headed straight back to where I sat. His outfit was liberally festooned with accessories that indicated his status as a Vietnam Vet. For some reason, that made me nervous. I sat very still and tried not to look up. After about 10 minutes he leaned over and said very directly and gruffly, “Are you Vietnamese?” How to answer? My mind raced for the right thing to say but my mouth elbowed its way to the front and said, “Yes.”

He hopped over to the seat next to me and spent about a hour telling me about his time there. And about how after the war he and his wife adopted and raised several Vietnamese children. He talked about them and showed me pictures.

That memory actually led me down one of those alleys I talked about back in the first paragraph. This was another bus ride from Detroit to Muncie. I was about 18 and I’m not sure there’s a word that could adequately define my naivetĂ©. A quick google search suggests "stupid". Let's go with that.

I wasn’t really prepared for the kind of ridership that the typical Greyhound bus attracts. All I knew was that it was going to take a long time and I wanted to be able to smoke. Which meant I was going to have to sit in the back. So I strode to the back, tossed my suitcase into the overhead. Looked that the 3 rows of young, black men in the seats behind the one I’d chosen. Smiled and chirped, “Hello!” Then sat down and popped open a book.

There was a buzzing of low voices behind me. That I did notice. I wondered why they were whispering and laughing. I felt self-conscious. But, I was awake so that was a normal being awake feeling.

It is only with the wisdom of hindsight that I understand that as a young woman who was clearly from the suburbs I had just plunked myself into the middle of situation that I maybe should have avoided. I probably would not have done that today. And I would have missed out on a lot. Because at some point in the ride I fell asleep and woke up having no idea where I was. I popped up and turned around and asked. They told me we were in Bowling Green, Ohio. I panicked. They asked where I was going and I told them. They assured me that I hadn’t missed my stop. We were taking the scenic route.

We started talking. They asked where I was from. I told them. They laughed. They asked if I’d ever been to Detroit. That made me mad. Of course. My dad worked Downtown. They asked if I’d ever been to some area I’d never been to. Then they laughed again, “You ain’t been to Detroit, then.” They asked if I’d ever had an interracial relationship. I said, “I’m biracial. All my relationships are interracial.”

They told me they were going to Gary “for business”. More laughing. That I understood. One guy didn’t talk to me at all. That made him more interesting to me than the one who asked for my phone number (yes, I'm THAT girl). I gave less-interesting guy the number. “This is a real number, right?” he asked, “Not like dial-a-joke or something?” I assured him it was the real number. It wasn’t.

The bus stopped at a McDonald’s and they all got out. The guy who hadn’t said anything to me stopped by my row and asked, “Can I get you something to eat?” I thanked him for the offer but assured him I was fine. He got back on the bus and handed me a bag. “I got you some hamburgers. It’s a long ride. You should eat something.”

I did. And went back to sleep. I didn’t talk to them anymore before the ride was over. I can’t remember if my stop came before or after theirs and this is where the alley dumps us back out onto the main street.

Can you imagine the uproar from the same camp that advocates for the normalization of gender reassignment surgery if I had demanded to be made to look as white as I feel? The accusations they would launched against “society” for making me reject my true self instead of accepting, embracing and owning it?

And, you know, they’d be right. It would be wrong for me to do that. And, I’ve figured out over time how to synthesize all the parts. How to deal with and organize the assumptions and expectations. How to understand that I get to define myself as an individual without having to hideously disfigure my body and pump myself full of hormones (which I thought were an evil plot by Big Pharma to poison us all).

Why do we tell everyone else to accept themselves and love their differences (and not take synthetic hormones) except when it comes to the issue of gender?

I don’t know. But, I think the moral of the story is this: men won’t always insist that you need to eat a hamburger so for goodness sake, enjoy it while it is happening.

Wait. No. That isn’t it.

No. No, that’s it.


  1. As someone who actually has a "transgendered" family member (i.e., a male relative-by-marriage who actually did, in fact, cut off his penis... although I'm not sure if he made a purse out of it; I should ask), all I can say is... AMEN!!!! I've heard it said that one can't think/feel their way into right acting, but they can act their way into right thinking/feeling. Ummm... I'm not sure that applies here, but I'm kinda thinking (ha ha!) that it does. So you don't "feel" like a man, even though you've been married for 20 years and have fathered two children? TOUGH. Act like a man, and the thinking/feeling will follow. Seriously, I cannot express the heartache and destruction that follows a decision to change one's gender. Despite all the bravada, those sex-change people aren't one bit happier as a woman than they were as a man (or vice versa). Because, ultimately...? "Wherever you go... there you are."

  2. Wow, C, I don't think I knew this about you. And your last point is so important. We've seen so many times how changing the outside really makes only small changes to what goes on inside. This is a message that everyone wants to drive home unless we're talking gender confusion. Then suddenly we don't have to settle for acceptance. We can go straight to butchery (so many jokes here, must resist).

    I'm not insensitive to the idea that not everyone fits cleanly into normal (yes, normal) gender identification. I absolutely think that things can go wrong (yes, wrong) and gender confusion can occur on a biological level. I don't think that means we should sort it out through this surgical procedure and a lifetime of hormone supplementation in pursuit of this mythical state of "happiness". If I had a child with gender confusion I would encourage my child to figure out a path where they could achieve an authentic life without the surgery and drugs. And if that means not easily fitting into a gender role, so be it. LIfe is hard. Harder for some people. That's just how it is.

  3. One lesson I learned from being part of this experience (albeit on the far periphery)... if you go to enough psychiatrists, eventually you WILL find one who will agree with your own, predetermined self-assessment and will even enable you to do what you want while also providing you the excuse needed to do what you want to do (namely, they will reassure you that the most important person in your life is YOU, so do what YOU want/"need" to do, no matter how it affects other people).

    Seriously, it only took changing shrinks about a dozen times for this person to finally find one who would validate him. Er, her. Him. Whatever.

    And what it did to his family -- his wife, his kids... I'm not sure the damage is even calculable.

  4. I occasionally visit a yahoogroup established by members of a particular midwifery professional association. I stopped recieving their updates in my inbox because I found it much healthier for my sanity not to see the day-to-day rantings. These include means for showing preference to "women of color" and so forth...

    I recently checked the group website because every few months I have to do so in order to confirm that I still can not stand them. There was a discussion of group politics - mostly boring stuff - followed by one very interesting off-topic email by a group member who was objecting to the use of the pronoun "she" because not every midwife identifies with the feminine gender. I did not read any of the follow up posts. I know my limits.

    Be male or female or other - I frankly do not care - but you do not have the right to censor my language or my thoughts.