why i stopped fucking with gender

this is the rough text of a rough talk i gave at pechakucha night christchurch volume 31. you can listen to the audio at pechakucha’s website. it was written mainly for myself and my own exploration and understanding but presented in the hopes it may help some cis people understand and some other trans and non binary people relate.

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typical understandings of trans people and transitioning are pretty limited. there are a bunch of reasons for this, but i’m not getting into that tonight.

when people think of ‘transition’ it’s usually in binary terms, and it’s usually thought of as ‘complete’ – changing your name and pronouns and birth certificate and going through whatever medical processes are available or necessary. most importantly it’s thought of as the only way, the one everyone does.

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but transition is different for everyone. for some it involves aligning every aspect of their social identity and physical body with the gender they are, and often for some of these people that gender is ‘opposite’ to the one they were assigned at birth.

but that’s not the complete trans experience. a lot of people do most of those things and a lot do some and some do none at all.

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so, i’m sharing my story. this story is also not the complete trans experience in any way, it’s just mine.

i think i was a pretty standard ‘boy’, if a little (very) socially awkward and anxious. i enjoyed biking around and playing outside and building things. i had a terrible fashion sense. i definitely didn’t “always just know”

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i did just recently remember my stepfather getting the scissor sisters’ first album. looking at the tracklist he probably got it for the comfortably numb cover. but i remember – i must have been about 7 or 8 – looking at the album art and my parents flipping the fuck out.

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around the same age i loved mom’s that’s life magazines. i remember reading about someone who was so desperate for surgery they lopped their junk off outside a hospital.

i remember growing up very young with a good friend of my mother’s who left new zealand to access confirmation surgery. i later realised that i had had zero contact with this person once they left.

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that’s about all i remember encountering as a kid when it comes to gender variance, until i – like a whole heap of others – hit tumblr in my early teens.

i then remember very clearly thinking “oh god, i hope i’m not trans, that would suck”. i remember the motivation behind that thought – it was “i know these people are treated so terribly and i think there may be a chance that i’m one of these people but i can’t be because i can’t imagine dealing with all that shit”.

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by 17 i was going through the process of getting hormone treatment. i knew that to make sure the endocrinologist believed me i had to dress super feminine and act like a very heterosexual woman.

this is the photo i eventually came out with at 19 – an extra two years of the wrong puberty while waiting.

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Photos by Kerryn Smith

but this isn’t a coming out story, it’s a story of shifting gender. because that’s what it does, and it’s normal. i think there’s often a tendency among the cis population to believe that if a trans person’s gender – be it identity or expression – isn’t immutable it’s less valid. that’s not the truth at all. even cis people experience shifts in gender expression in some way or another. not a lot of people imply butch cis women aren’t really women.

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baby’s first undercut! note the wonderful lace glove. wearing traditionally hyper feminine objects and looks began as a means to access the healthcare i needed but i also feel that trans women should absolutely be allowed to be super fucking femme even when society says their bodies are not.

just because society expects us to be feminine doesn’t mean being feminine is not radical

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that undercut is definitely also the start of the absolute fun i have in messing with expectations and clashing traditionally gendered looks.

things pretty much continue the same for a solid year or so. I’ll note that this whole time i’d had what some people call ‘auxiliary pronouns’ – that is, two options. most people were calling me ‘she’ and ‘her’ but i also listed ‘a/ath/athes’ in my online bios, after Athena.

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they’re what some call neo-pronouns – that is, invented pronouns for those who feel like she, he, or they don’t fit. They’re not new at all; ‘e/em/es’ have been in use since 1890. ‘ey/em/eir’ can be traced to 1975 and are in common usage in trans and nonbinary communities today.

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this is me in late 2015. in a rush to take a picture of a bird on the gold coast i opened the wrong camera. the look of joy is absolutely genuine.

jumping ahead – because this isn’t a story that needs to be told step by step – what’s changed now?

basically, i started passing.

passing, if you’re unsure, refers to being perceived as cis. it’s something some people strive for – some because it’s what they feel they should look like, but also because passing means safety.

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passing means people not perceiving you as trans so not assaulting or abusing you for being trans. in terms of daily experiences, passing is a MAJOR benefit.

it isn’t inherently good or bad. it can provide life-saving safety (and definitely has for me) but it also came with invisibility.

i found the more i passed, the more people assumed i was straight, for example. i’d get people asking about my husband – and my kids.

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But also, in many places ‘trans panic’ is a legal defence for murder.

It’s one thing to have an awkward conversation online, but it’s FAR safer to do that there than in a bar with someone you’ve been chatting to and you’ve JUST THEN realised they clearly don’t know you’re trans. there’s no way to know how they’ll react, but from experience, it’s far more likely to be a) creepy fetishisation b) anger and violence, c) weird over-acceptance, d) actual decent reaction.

So, i decided to fuck it.

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my wonderful flatmate gave me this INCREDIBLE and VERY QUEER jacket. i wore it out of the house a few days later, in a conscious effort to present more queer and pass less. i was crossing colombo st down by victoria park when a car actively accelerated towards me less than 50m away.

weirdly i think this is a good summation of why i stopped fucking with gender

Jennifer Shields 16.pngIn a text I wrote for pride last year I said:

“Forcing people to recognise [our abjectness], our queerness, challenges their stable, normative world. In a world where, for many of our most vulnerable, being visibly queer and trans is a death threat, the responsibility to embody this challenge may fall to the more privileged.”

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I stand by this. And I am in a position of privilege – I’m Pākehā, I’m () in a full time job, but also I’ve absolutely had it. I’ve been through all the shit and survived (if not unscathed) and I am 100% unwilling to let anyone else go through any of it if I can prevent it at all.

Sometimes that means standing up to aggressive drunk dudes on late night streets, but I think it also means not letting my identity slide into the background.

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so what does this mean for me? my gender is one big “who the fuck knows”. it’s open. it’s less “have to be traditionally feminine” and more “queer hard femme”. it’s singlets covered in sawdust but also crop tops and fancy white jackets but also hot pink leather jackets that might get me run down. it’s not worrying about strangers calling me ‘sir’ because the people who know better don’t – and that confusion is kind of the point.

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Photo: Janneth Gil

what does it mean for everyone else? not much at all, actually

i’m quite okay with people understanding me as a binary trans woman – i think it’s important. that’s the way 99% of the world sees me, so that’s how i get treated. i’m subject to misogyny and transphobia and queerphobia – that term still describes me even if it doesn’t necessarily describe my gender.

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so i think materially it’s important to express those aspects. i use ‘she’ just as much as i do ‘they’ because it’s rare to see a trans woman in this industry or, heck, even in this city. it’s important to me to express both those parts of myself to aim to be a possibility model for as many people as i can.

currently my gender expression is a lot more jeans and a lot fewer dresses – but that could change tomorrow, who knows? i think, most of all and most importantly: i dont want to look or be cis

 

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