My Gender Identity Two Years Into Transitioning
It’s been more than two years since I started the process of socially/medically transitioning. In reality, it’s been more like 15, or 25 years, but that’s too messy to account for. My own sense of my gender identity has remained rather consistent over that time — perhaps because I felt it dormant and unsettled inside of me for so long. However, much scrutiny has been applied to it. The first year and a bit of this process were a little like being lost in space. I was in my state of queer incubation, figuring out tectonic shifts in the relative isolation of 20 million Koreans living around me in Seoul (I started medically transitioning in the ROK). Meanwhile, like Major Tom floating in a tin can, through my telescope — the worldwide electric internet — I could spy back on the world. Of course, Seoul is earth too, but LGBTQ+ matters lived under the surface, and then there was always the culture gap. But in the political West, all sorts of bizarre things were happening since last I inhabited queer space. Specifically, a gender revolution.
I came out to my friend — now partner — and therapist as gender nonconforming and then gender queer, these seemed safer to me than what I really wanted: trans woman. It didn’t take long for me to own that identity, but for some reason, it seemed too much at the beginning. Instead, I wanted room to wiggle around in the liminal gender space that inhabits the in between. I didn’t really understand gender queer, this was a term that I had only spotted through my electric telescope. Ten years ago, before I left the West for Central and East Asia, queer space was called “gay space” — like gay pride, not queer pride — and gender contained just as much fuckery, but there were far fewer words to discuss it. Sure there were femmes, butches, bears, daddies, dykes, and trans people. But not the twenty-whatever identities you can now use on some social media platforms, or the seemingly endless array of gender combinations found in subreddits. Even my own identity, a demisexual, gender nonconforming, femme, tomboi, lesbian, trans woman would have scarcely made sense. Between now and those early Korean days, I have waded into this gender milieu.
I think the dizzying array of identities that are rammed into Leslie Feinberg’s* term “transgender” is at first discombobulating. There are many identities that align with my own subjectivity, but many that don’t. I struggled for a while to fully grasp how my own identity fit vis a vis non-binary identities. I really don’t feel comfortable with being called “binary identified,” but I have a strong sense of female embodiment. I actually don’t really believe in a true gender binary, as most people seem to oscillate along gender frequencies back and forth, up and down, like wave patterns, regardless of being cis or trans. At first, there seemed to be a semantic dance going on. Many conversations about being nonbinary would begin with the statement “gender is a construct” and then progress in a transgressive way against this concept. Okay, I don’t like arbitrary gender roles either, but can we really view gender as merely constructed, are we not engaging in another form of binary thinking, one of the oldest, mind/body dualism? 2000+ years and we end up back at Plato. I mean, I get it, gender is a construct, as are our ways of thinking about concepts in general, but does it not have some form of material reality?
I often lay awake thinking about this. I go to a trans/gender queer support group and most people are non-binary. I am one of two “binary” trans people in the group. But I feel more comfortable at this group than some of the other ones that cater more to trans women in a very binary fashion. Here there are makeup lessons, and seminars on how to behave like a woman — no shit, they have these in the Netherlands, finishing school for trans women. As I contemplate gender queerness, usually after my monthly meetings, I often don’t see much of a political difference between my sense of gender nonconformity and being non-binary. I pick and choose which gender roles and expectations feel good for me. This is not unlike my cis partner who is also a femme, tomboi, just a cis one. This issue came up at a recent meeting and one of the non-binary people mused quizzically about how they differed from their gender transgressive cis female friends who were happily cis identified. Our group leader made up a hypothetical scenario aimed at highlighting the mercurial nature of our identities over time. The specifics of the scenario are not relevant, but the group leader mentioned that maybe the person in question would eventually return to a female-bodied identity at some point. At this, the non-binary person shuddered with audible/visual revulsion. I pointed out that this reaction illustrated the difference between them and their friends. In all of these conversations, there is usually — not always — a sense of bodily dysphoria or at least discomfort in feeling female/male-bodied. Which is where we connect and depart. My body feels the same way, but only when I think about it as anything other than female. Non-binary people seem to have the same reaction to being placed exclusively in a sense of male/female embodiment. The body strikes back. Somatic dysphoria seems to subtend our gender variance. Or maybe not.
I still don’t know where to place the trans femme non-binaries who have more body dysphoria than me and are more femme but still maintain a non-binary identity. Is the difference to do with the politics of gender and subversion? Perhaps. Or, maybe after decades of living in uncomfortable flesh and society, one never feels totally at home anywhere, I also get that. And then there are those who don’t experience dysphoria and those who do but opt to do nothing about it. Leslie, you really gave us a broad and fucked up term indeed. It’s wonderful.
I am not sure if I am missing something here, but through these reflective meditations, my own identity has not shifted much. I feel like if I was ten years younger I would have stopped longer at gender queer before moving all the way over to woman. Not because I think gender queer is some sort of stepping stone to a binary identity, but because that’s what feels right for me. But still, gender nonconformity feels requisite to my identity. Being subversive is in my DNA. I hated male social roles and felt endlessly out of place in them, but I certainly don’t want to uncritically pick up the female mantel without playing with it. As far as the rest goes, I am femme in appearance and mannerisms (the latter less so), but a lifetime of mucking about in the Boreal forest, climbing mountains, and the like, makes me a little bit of a tomboi. Gender identity is such a complex and personal thing that maybe trying to schematize it is a fool’s errand. Maybe that makes me a foolish, demisexual, femme, tomboi, lesbian, trans woman.
*Leslie Feinberg’s “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come” is often credited with giving us the term “transgender” in its contemporary sense. It is something akin to Sandy Stone’s “posttranssexual” which for whatever reason didn’t catch on.