(Paper presented at the 2nd Trans* Health, Advocacy and Research Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, 30 May – 2 June 2014)
Gender is taken for granted in our society. It underlies our relationships with each other, the way we interact. I was thinking about that this morning at breakfast when the waiters came around and greeted me: “Good morning, ma’am, can I get you coffee or tea?” And in that simple conversational act, which is necessary for social politeness, for a transaction to take place, we are gendered. An assumption has to be made, for the sake of politeness, about our identity, based on our gender.
And that assumption is accepted, for the sake of politeness, because you can’t go around explaining your gender preference when all the waiter is trying to do is ascertain your preference for coffee or tea. So assumptions are made, and assumptions become the basis of polite interaction. Which is not such a big deal, is it? Because correcting people all of the time when we feel affronted is just not polite. Being aggressive is just not polite. Claiming back your power is just not what we do in civilised society.
And while you’re asserting your preference for coffee over tea and politely allowing the waiter to gender you, there’s a man outside in the street, looking at a masculine woman walking hand in hand down the road with their female partner. He thinks to himself: how dare she dress like a man, walk like a man, look like a man, have sex with female partners like a man? If she can do that, he thinks, if anyone, regardless of gender can do that, then what is a man? What is a woman? Is it possible, he wonders, that gender is less important than I have been taught to believe? That my power as a man is really an illusion? Because here’s this woman, and she’s as powerful as I am. He wonders all of this, whether he’s conscious of it or not, but what he is conscious of is that he cannot, and will not, give his power away. His power is his masculinity. And he has to enforce it. Because if he does not, who is he? Where does his power lie, if not in his penis? But his emasculation is not a big deal is it? Because correcting people all of the time is just not polite. Being aggressive is just not polite. Claiming back your power is just not what we do in civilised society.
The difference between these two scenarios is that the man in the street will stand up for himself and reclaim his power.
Gender is taken for granted in our society. It is a common language, a way to navigate our relations with each other. Our genderedness is taken for granted, and assumptions are made, for the sake of politeness. And in this polite society where gender is taken for granted, gender violence is seen as unavoidable: a violence perpetrated by one gender upon another.
We live in a society where violence is perpetrated along gender lines, upon gendered people. Underlying this violence is the way this society takes gender for granted, the way it makes assumptions about gender, the way power is inserted into this gendered relatedness. In a patriarchal society like ours, power is at the core of gender relationships, and where there is power there is violence, because you can only have power if you have power over someone. And as gender is at the basis of our relationships, gender, power and violence become the common denominator for all of our interactions in this society. And this is why South Africa, like all other patriarchies, is a society of gender violence.
And this is a big deal. Because in this society where it is not polite to correct people, where it is not polite to be aggressive, assertive, where claiming back your power is just not what we do in a civilised society, there are people who are correcting, being aggressive and claiming their power back. And they are the perpetrators of gender violence. And the only way we can counteract this stand by perpetrators of gender violence, is to take the same stand in opposition to it. It is time for us to correct people, to be assertive, to claim back our power. It is time for us, in a polite society, to stop being polite.
If the taking for granted of gender and the assumptions made about our gender is at the core of gender violence, then we need to look at our own attitudes about gender and the assumptions we make.
Because we as trans* people are not, and never have been, in a position to take gender for granted. Gender is not simple for us. We’ve had to face the assumptions made about our gender and we’ve had to claim our own space on the gender spectrum, because the space we were allocated was not who we see ourselves as.
And therein lies our power. Unlike most people, we’ve had to navigate gender and plot out our own course on the spectrum, finding and creating a point or points along it that better describe who we are. This means we do not take gender for granted. This means we do not make assumptions about gender. And this means we do not perpetrate gender violence. Or do we?
I believe this is a huge question for us as gender activists, trans* activists, gender violence activists, for us as a trans* community and for us as individuals: do we take gender for granted, do we make assumptions about gender, and do we perpetrate gender violence? Because until we make a serious and painfully truthful enquiry into our own relation to the concept of gender, we can’t make a difference.
I myself have had to face these questions, and I do so through my art – my writing and photography. I use my art, in the form of self-portraits to navigate my gender.
Feeling deeply uncomfortable with my allocated space on the gender spectrum, I’ve used and continue to use my self-portraits to create a space for myself where I feel more authentic. And the distance between the position I used to inhabit on the gender spectrum and the space I inhabit now is light years away. And it has changed my life and brought a great sense of comfort and a deeper knowledge of who I am.
But comfort is dangerous. Comfort is the space where we take things for granted and make assumptions. And after leaving a life, a self, and a relatedness to others where I and others have taken who I am and my gender for granted and made assumptions about it, I have to be constantly vigilant against comfort. Because as soon as I’m comfortable, I stop learning and growing, and as soon as I’m comfortable, I start making comfortable assumptions about others and my relatedness with them, which is inevitably violent, because then I am not in a relationship with them, but with who I assume they are; and I am not in a relationship with myself, but relate to myself based on who I assume I am. And if there is one thing I have learned it is that the greatest violence against my self comes not from others, but from my own assumption of who I am. Because if I assume who I am, I close off the possibilities of who I can be.
So I use my art and my writing to constantly question my space in the world, and my situatedness in relation to the gender spectrum. And this means asking questions beyond am I male or female, or neither. It means asking questions like how does society define masculinity and femininity? And, more importantly, how do I define masculinity and femininity for myself?
I truly believe that as a trans* person I have a great gift: it is the gift of being able to take something as socially solid and defined and assumed as gender, and to redefine it for myself. I get to choose the way I define my gender. I get to question whether I want to be gendered at all. And I have found an authentic space for myself as a genderqueer, transmasculine person. This is my identity, I have created it, and I get to own it.
But, as with all gifts, it comes with responsibility. Firstly to myself: if I have the ability to discard an identity and create a new one, the least I owe myself is not to discard one readymade identity for another. I realised that I can’t just leave ‘female’ and all it means behind and take on a Googled and Wikipediad definition of genderqueer. Just as ‘female’, with all its tickboxes of what it means to be female did not fit me, I can’t expect to find something else by ticking all the boxes. I realised that this would be jumping from one box into another, and whether it was a ‘female’ box or a ‘genderqueer’ box, they would both be as confining and restricting, as violating.
I mean, I discarded ‘female’ because it did not describe all of who I am. It did not allow me the freedom to be all of me. And once I discarded female I knew I had to keep my value of freedom uppermost in my mind while creating a new identity. I did not ‘look’ for a new identity. Because then I would only find readymade boxes. I had to create a new identity, because that would allow me to describe myself as I see myself, not as others see me.
What I’ve also had to realise, which has been much more difficult, is that I can’t discard the female completely. Because I can’t discard femininity completely. Through my self-portraits I’ve come to the difficult realisation that although I feel very uncomfortable with certain feminine characteristics, I have a lot of feminine characteristics that are truly part of who I am and that are truly beautiful. And, in the same breath, in allowing myself to more freely explore masculinity, just because I’m exploring masculinity does not mean that I can just take on all aspects of masculinity without questioning them.
This, I believe, is my responsibility to myself as a questioner of gender: I can’t limit myself to the only option society offers me of being gendered. And if I choose gender above agenderedness, I can’t limit myself to the choice society has provided me with – male or female. I need to not only question my given gender, but the entire language of gender, and the way our gender roles are constructed along strict lines of male = masculinity and female = femininity. I need to critically look at all the aspects of masculinity and femininity and choose those traits from each that best allow me to embody myself. Because there are some very ugly and violent masculine traits, and equally ugly and disempowering feminine traits. It is my responsibility, within the language of gender, to find for myself the empowering, beautiful aspects of both masculinity and femininity and create for myself my own relation to gender.
Up until March of this year, as you can see in my self-portraits, I had a shaved head for the last two years, and this, along with my tattoos, and my large, weight-lifting body, has made it quite easy for me to pass as male. And because I was exploring more of my masculinity, I had no problem with that. But then, because I’m constantly exploring and questioning my gender identity and my identity through my art, and in my relationships with other people, I realised that I was not exploring masculinity, but hiding behind it. Hiding from femininity behind masculinity.
And I was hiding from femininity for two reasons: because of the way society defines femininity, and because of my own definition of femininity. The masculine, as patriarchal society has taught us, is stronger, more powerful, more rational, more level-headed, less emotional. In other words, less vulnerable. This is the version of masculinity portrayed by society and the version I had in my head, despite my feminist ideals. And while there is nothing wrong with exploring these beautiful sides to masculinity, because they have their place and are powerful traits for any person, I was using this masculinity because I was scared of the feminine. I was scared of the feminine because my feminine had been sexually violated from the age of three, and continued to be sexually violated in different forms until the age of 30. I realised the difficult truth that because of my experience I equated femininity with vulnerability, with weakness, with victimhood.
And if I took gender for granted and made assumptions and didn’t question my definition of gender or masculinity and femininity, I would have lived as a transmasculine person, or probably even fully transitioned into a man, who was aggressive because I needed to protect myself. But not only would I be protecting myself, I would be perpetuating the lie that the feminine is victim, weak and vulnerable, and the masculine is strong, aggressive and powerful. And I could not do that. Not to myself, or to others. How could I live with a lie? How could I lie to myself and lie to others, perpetuating the very foundation of our society that believes that the female is weak and the male is strong? How could I claim to be a feminist when I was entrenching sexism within myself, being misogynistic towards my own femininity?
It’s not easy to ask these questions of myself. And it’s not easy to answer them. But as an artist, as an activist, and as a trans* individual, it is impossible for me not to ask and answer them. Because I do not take gender for granted, I do not make assumptions and I do not want to violate. I also, growing up as a victim, want to stand up and correct, be assertive and take my power back. I am tired of being polite. My work is not polite. And neither am I.
And while the first responsibility that comes with the gift of trans*hood is to myself, the second is to my community and society at large. How can I in a polite society balance the scales where the only people taking back their power are the rapists and other perpetrators of gender violence? I don’t think I can start to answer that difficult question until I face the difficult answer that I can’t. Not until I look at my own assumptions about gender, masculinity and femininity, and until I ask myself what gender violence I’m perpetrating against my own masculinity and femininity.
Once I’ve done this, and while I then continually question and assess my assumptions about myself and my thoughts about my gender and gender in general, my second responsibility to the community and society is to be a voice that speaks for gender variance, for an authentic, personal relatedness to gender. And I do this by representing myself in my art and sharing it in the global gallery of social media. I do this by collaborating on portraits of others who authentically inhabit their situatedness to gender and then share that outside of the gallery space on social media. Because I am tired of being polite and I am tired of a polite society where young people have no conception of the lived experience of the trans*person outside of the horrific realities of corrective rape and transphobic violence on the one hand, and the True Hollywood fairytale of Laverne Cox on the other.
I owe it to my society, my community and, specifically, to the younger generation of trans* individuals to not only live my truth, but share it, to not only share beautiful relationships with other beautiful trans* people, but to share those relationships, our stories. Because besides the horrors and the violence, there is also incredible beauty and joy: a celebration of the ability to transform ourselves in a polite society that does not encourage transformation, but conformation. And the beauty and the joy of transformation lies in the ‘con’ prefix of its opposite, conformation. Because to conform is to be a con, a liar, a deceptive person in a deceptive society. The beauty and joy of transformation and lived trans* experience is the truly miraculous ability to choose, to own and to live your truth. And it is in living and sharing this truth that my responsibility as a trans* person lies: to not only transform my self, but transform the concepts of masculinity, femininity and gender itself in a society that violates based on gender.