Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Intransient



It's been a long time since I've written about gender. To be honest, I was burnt out on the topic for quite a while. For several of my years in Portland, the subject had somewhat dominated my life. I was The Lady anoNYMous: Genderqueer Activist! with minor celebrity status, and was constantly educating people about the gender spectrum in life as a performer and in my personal life as somewhat of an oddity, even among Portland's teeming Trans community. My gender was practically my identity, and while that may be okay for some, I started finding myself in more and more situations where being able to fit in among the guys as I had as a teenager was becoming a useful tool and in some cases it was a survival technique...again. Instead of being able to sit and have a beer with or share a puff with someone and explain myself at length, it was becoming necessary to respond to male pronouns again, to sign documents as James Watkinson and respond to officials or corporate superiors when they spoke that name.

I felt like a traitor. I felt like my Trans card was being revoked. I felt like my identity was being violated and sucked away from me. And I had no idea how I could explain to my friends, fans, or community that I was in situations where I couldn't stand up for myself and sit people down and educate them. I was even finding myself in situations with my husband where he had to refer to me by male pronouns, and then he started doing so in our personal lives among friends. It was always a slip, always an understandable slip...and I died a little bit inside each time.

When I first started to hang out in Portland - to spend more time there than the town where my tiny apartment was located - I found myself spending time in a tightly knit community of mostly FTM (female-to-male) transgender folk who flitted among three or four houses that were shared by these early-twenties hippie-punk artists and activists. Many of them were immediately taken with me and with my writing and my voice. My singing voice was at its peak then: it was a tool I could wield like a weapon. One person compared it with Ani DiFranco's ability to make her guitar sound like an entire orchestra and claimed that I didn't even need instrumentation to back me. And yes, I do believe I was that good back then.

I was more comfortable around these folken than any I had ever encountered before. Without me even realizing it early on, they saw me as a shapeshifter, effortlessly and unconsciously taking on the forms of a flamboyant gay man, a butch dyke, a femme straight girl, or a foul-mouthed redneck from one moment to the next. And they could relate more than anyone I had ever been around. I didn't know it then, but I wasn't just transgender: I was Trans Everything. My identity was such a slippery thing that I would spend the next several years analyzing it through writing in an effort to pin it down, and I would speak about these efforts to receptive audiences. 

Transgender author and activist Kate Bernstein came to Portland with an interesting project in mind: to gather together young transgender writers and have them perform their own writings, linked by bits of ensemble pieces, in a show called The Language of Paradox that would open for her to perform her own work. This would be the second time she had done this project in Portland, and it would be the second time working with her for some of these young writers, including my best friend who had introduced me to the trans community in the first place. It was when my friend hooked me up with this project that The Lady anoNYMous became a performing artist. I became addicted to the stage and high on the attention that I received afterward when people would stop me in the street and ask when my next show was.

And naturally, that was when I realized there had to be a next show. And another, and another. The Language of Paradox continued after Kate left in different forms with some of the same writers and some different ones for each subsequent show. Eventually I was facilitating the project. We performed for benefits. We performed for Sexual Violence Awareness Week at Liberty Hall. We performed for Gender Awareness Week at Lewis & Clark Community College. I incorporated a cappella singing into my pieces, and I performed solo at benefits, house shows, and open mic nights. It was always on the subject of identity, and gender identity in particular. Many people didn't know what to make of me, including transfolk. I know there were some who thought I was a public mockery of the community, being a person who identified as female and went by female pronouns while presenting themself as male and opting not to go in for hormone therapies or sex reassignment surgeries. I know I was seen as having my cake and eating it too. As if it were some special privilege to be considered part of the trans community that I was not deserving of because I didn't meet certain requirements, because my appearance as a privileged white male could not possibly know the suffering of being born a woman and feeling like a man, or being born a man and trying to appear as and be treated as a woman.

The truth is that I lived in constant danger of being revealed as a fraud if I took advantage of my white male privilege in any way, and I had to keep on being loud about my speculations of gender and my identity as The Lady anoNYMous to be included in my community. When I began to be quiet about it, to be frustrated about it, and to have to survive as a chameleon outside of the Transgender Bubble that Portland provides...that is when my community and I began to drift apart, and even my dearest friends who had known me before I moved my life to the city were distancing themselves from me. Whenever someone caught wind that I had let myself be addressed as "James," they retreated another step away from me.

And I was tired of ceaselessly examining my identity and putting a million different labels on it while also crying out that "You Cannot Label Me!" It was almost a relief in some ways to be uprooted from Portland and transplanted in Kansas City where no one knew anything about the ways I had grown to identify myself and no one had ever heard of The Lady anoNYMous. All anyone knew about me was what my mother had told them. I was her gay son, Jimmy, moving from Portland after a traumatic break up. I taught people to call me Nym but left out anything having to do with The Lady when asked where my chosen name came from. People called me by male pronouns, but I had been long forming the opinion that that was entirely understandable and it would be unreasonable of me to be offended. I did not correct them. I did not educate them. So many of my friends would have been ashamed of me. I didn't care. I was something broken and completely different. I wasn't a performer or an activist or a member of a community anymore. I was the walking dead, and the only thing left was to finish myself off through whiskey and beer.

Well, we all know I didn't die, though it wasn't for lack of trying. I was ready to die, I had already accepted my death, but people didn't let me die, and a year later, after hours of therapy and over a dozen medications, here I am, disabled in some ways but making music and writing, and reclaiming my identity as The Lady anoNYMous.

And I reclaim my identity as Trans. It's not something anyone can revoke from you, and it's not a fad or a passing phase. My gender still isn't locked down, my sexual orientation isn't easy to describe, and yesterday I went make-up shopping with my mother (for her part, she's helping me out in trying to look my best even though I have a pretty hardcore case of psoriasis) and I immediately came home and tried it out, delighted to find little gifts of eyeshadow, mascara, and lipstick in a new makeup bag with my purchases from the Clinique counter. All while wearing carhartts and combat boots.

Through Facebook friends I became aware that yesterday was Trans Visibility Day. You know, a day for transfolk to step up and say, "Hey, I'm trans. We walk among you. We're your family, your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, your servers, your teachers, your mechanics, your... Well, we're here and we need your recognition. We need your protection from unjustified and unspeakable hatred. And we deserve equal rights and respect." My first thought was that I should do something for this day, that I should step up and say, "Hey, I'm trans and I'm making myself visible with the rest of my community." Then a voice inside me said, "That's not your community anymore. And look at you. You're not trans. You're still going by male pronouns and letting people call you by your birth name!"

Then a new voice spoke up, a voice that's been being nurtured by my time in therapy and by my acts of creation. It said, "Fuck that." It said, "You're still a kick-ass chick inside your head and you're at least as female as you are male. You're everything that you were and spoke of in Portland. No one can take that away. Just because you're getting more comfortable with yourself and with how others see you doesn't make you any less of an oddity. You are no less Trans."

And I decided to publicly say, yet again, that I am Trans, and you may not have known it, but we walk among you. I'm not here to educate everyone about the gender spectrum and to discuss my sexuality at length in a public forum anymore. That part of my life is over, because I did enough of that and I'm putting it behind me. Today I'm simply telling myself and others that no one is going to shame me into editing my identity, and I'm going to be visible and heard. I am Nym. The Lady anoNYMous, anoNYMous Raven, born James Watkinson, grew up being called Jimmy, and I don't care if you call me by male pronouns, but to be honest I do prefer female pronouns and to be treated with respect as a Lady with a capital-fucking-L, and if you don't like it, well, I could have kicked your ass before neuropathy turned my body against me, but just know that I could have and I could've done it in heels! So THERE!

The moral of the story: Trans people take on many forms and are often people you would least expect. We don't walk around with signs over our heads, and it's not really something we discuss unless we're getting to an intimate level with someone, emotionally or physically. Some people make their gender and their analysis of it their entire lives. They even make careers for themselves out of it. I'm not one of those people. I'm just a girly-boy from a small redneck town in Oregon, and that alone has spawned identities that would seem at odds in a single human being...but, well, here I am. I'm not going to analyze it to death anymore, and I'm not going to let anyone tell what I can or cannot identify myself as.

I'm just...here. And I have some stories to tell.



 (I had a little selfie photo shoot after trying on my new make-up...)