Guest Opinion: Born and becoming

  • by Dianna Anderson
  • Wednesday November 16, 2022
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Dianna Anderson. Photo: Courtesy Dianna Anderson
Dianna Anderson. Photo: Courtesy Dianna Anderson

[Growing up], I didn't feel connected to womanhood any more than I felt connected to the car my mom drove to ferry me to and from school while I played my genuinely terrible mix CDs for her. Putting on clothing typically perceived as womanly was restrictive and frustrating for me. My mom had to explain to me what panty lines are and how to make sure my clothing wasn't see-through. At one point, she hauled me out of the car in front of my cousins to tell me to go put on a bra because she could tell I wasn't wearing one under my tee shirt. But such strictures felt false and imposed from the outside world rather than something that felt innate to me.

Looking back on my experiences of "womanhood," I can't help but wonder if I am simply trying to flee it. Being a "woman" does mean a lot of restraints are cast upon me in my perceived behavior — the fact that I'm supposed to wear makeup to work, that "professional dress" for women often means knowing exactly how to accessorize (I do not) and being a woman means holding back in a meeting because your interruption is perceived as rude and brazen while the male coworker next to you is just "having a conversation." In some way, I've spent much of my adult life trying to expand my own conception of "woman" in ways I knew would strike at the barriers set up for so many of us. In abandoning womanhood to become something other, was I simply seeking the safer shores of male privilege?

The notion of "fleeing" one's gender appears to be an amalgamation of anti-trans talking points and confusion about what it means to be non-binary or trans. Professor Jack Halberstam (then publishing as Judith) argues that there is a home in the in-between, in the borderlands between genders, writing, "Transgender discourse in no way necessarily argues that people should just pick up new genders and eliminate old ones or proliferate genders at will simply because gendering is available as a self-determining practice. Rather, transgender discourse asks only that we recognize non-normative genders already in circulation and at present under construction." Halberstam, in other words, is arguing that transition does not mean a flight from womanhood or manhood, nor an eliminationist approach that destroys gender altogether, but rather a recognition of and discussion about what "womanhood" and "manhood" mean. Each trans man or trans woman is making a deliberative statement in their own way about what womanhood or manhood looks like.

It's us pesky non-binaries who are the problem. Going back to Abigail Shrier, the author who wrote an entire book arguing that teenage trans men are simply "fleeing" womanhood, escaping into something perceived as "easier," non-binary and genderfluid identities rightfully confuse: "What bothers Chandler — and the reason [they] started a course of testosterone — was that everyone 'read' [them] consistently as a girl. [They] want to get to 'a more in-between feeling'— of being identified as a woman only some of the time. 'They/them' are the pronouns [they] claim — but sexless epicene is how [they] want to be seen. Very often non-binary teens seem to resist playing your game or speaking your language. They want to topple the board, send the pieces flying, rewrite all the rules, eliminate rules altogether. They don't want to 'pass,' and they don't want your categories. They are 'genderfluid' — and reserve the right to change their minds." The existence of someone who would choose to feel home in the in-between, to be deliberately perceived not as one or the other but both and nothing at the same time, is wildly confusing to Abigail.

These young people are, in her mind, fleeing womanhood but also in many ways embracing it by refusing to "complete" a transition. Even trans men who identify as men who flout gender norms, such as the YouTuber Chase Ross, are too much for her: "While he could pass as a man if he wanted to, he seems to have something else in mind. His earrings, cat tattoos, flop of hair dyed every vivid shade of parrot, and nail polish all slyly nod toward the sex of his birth. Keeping others off balance seems part of the fun and very much the point." In her attempt at bigotry, in arguing that Ross does not actually pass because he engages in traditionally feminine activities while presenting as a man, Shrier accidentally lands at the very point of it.

For many years, being trans has largely meant disappearance — whether by violence or alteration of the body to pass and go stealth. But as the queer community becomes much more visible than before, becoming coherent legal subjects, we are refusing to disappear and refusing to be disappeared. Instead, we exist deliberately in the middle of everything, finding a home in what we are not: we are not women; we are not men. We are in between. We are fluid. We are in the borderlands. Though I was taught and trained in womanhood, I can now discard what no longer fits, like donating old clothing to a thrift store and finding something new that suits me much better. I have eliminated my periods with medical intervention, stopped wearing makeup and dresses, and developed a sense of myself that is more at home to me as non-binary than womanhood ever was. I am in transit.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from "In Transit: Being Non-Binary in a World of Dichotomies," by Dianna Anderson, copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books. For more information, click here.

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