Today I spent the better part of the day binging The Handmaid's Tale with my bestie. I don't know why it took me so long to watch it, but now that I've started I'm hooked.
Some of it is visceral horror, and some of it is familiar. Some of it gives me a sense of returning home, and seems to bring with it an awkward flare of Stockholm Syndrome. It's a show about a cult, and, aside from the killing and the rape, it captures the feel of the one I grew up in very well. It's an emotional journey for anyone, not just me. But it brings back memories. So many memories. And for whatever reason, I find myself bizarrely missing a life with only tiny choices.
You sit on the edge of your seat, hands on your knees, back an aching ramrod. The sermon is going on and on, about Submission, Obedience, Service. You shift position, trying to relieve the pain, only to feel his massive hand roughly squeeze your knee. You glance up to see that he is giving you a warning look. Anxiety and boredom compete for dominance like fighting snakes, coiled around your spine and the bones of your legs.
You reach into the bucket and squeeze out the rag, then reach up to continue scrubbing the walls near the door. It's a beautiful day and you want to be out in it, high up in a tree, swaying with the breeze and pretending you're an eagle. His footsteps march up from behind, and he asks you a question you cannot recall.
"Why do we have to do this?" You ask. It's been days since you last got to play. "It's like we're your slaves".
"Why do you think we had you", he asks, his humor curling around his truth like cigarette smoke in a forest fog. "Mean dad, always making you work."
He says this a lot, as if mocking your feelings will prove their silliness and cancel them out. He doesn't think he's mean; he thinks he's just.
"Rebellion is born in the heart of a child" he quotes, his belt snapping loudly behind you. "And only the rod of correction can drive it out." He says this almost every day. And then he says "This hurts me more than it hurts you", right before he makes certain that it hurts you more than it hurts him.
There are more. So many more. Twelve years of more, because it started before I turned three. One of my earliest memories is of standing in the bathroom corner, naked, with a soiled diaper tied around my neck while my parents argued in the kitchen about when the proper time to begin making children into men might be. My father won that argument, because he said it was my mother's place to submit, and because she did her best to do so. From the start, I saw her cage as surely as I saw my own.
Patriarchal religion is a dangerous thing.
They made the women wear head coverings to church once they reached puberty, sometimes younger. Everything revolved around our depravity and about how graceful God is for damning us to hell unless we follow whatever codex was required by the leader.
"Who are you in submission to?" They would ask. I was to be in submission to my father, who was in submission to the leader, who claimed to be in submission to God. Anyone who voiced disagreement was disciplined or excommunicated. Families were sometimes separated. Children, and sometimes adults, were occasionally plucked out of one family and placed into another in the name of submission.
When my mother left, they told us she'd been swayed by the Devil, and that she was taken by the demons. I believed it, and was afraid of her. No one had ever told me differently. And life outside the cult had always been said to be demon-infested and harsh.
There were good days, too. Wonderful days. Days in the woods, hunting for wildflowers and butterflies. Days where I managed to get out of work and could engage in play. A memorable forty mile bicycle ride. Trees. Playing "house" with my sister and friends in the woodshed or in her room. Making mud pies. That time I built a failed hang glider out of duck tape, painting plastic, and PVC pipe. The hole I dug in the garden to hide in, with the dirt piled on a board so I could pull it over and feel safe. The smell of the ground, even though I hated the way dirt felt on my fingers. Making friendship bracelets. Cross-stitching kits. The Hobbit. And oh, heavens, the way a certain boy's fingers danced over the piano keys and wove magic within my heart.
I remember trips to the beach with family, seashells, the scent of saltwater air bursting cells in blackberry bushes, and the slow smell of rotting kelp. The adults playing rummikub around the table, and how surprised they were when I easily joined in.
But daily life was often about rituals and control. And I was constantly anxious, punishing myself for what I'd already been punished for as I tried to make myself be better. Telling myself that if I could only just read the future then I could know what to do that would please him, make him happy, make me feel as if he loved me again the way I remembered, when I was so tiny he could throw me into the air and catch me on the way down, my mother's heart in her throat but mine full of nothing but joy and trust.
And so, watching Offred's unimpeachable sense of entrapment, I know it intimately. And when she swallows her tongue and saves her rage for midnight tears, I know that, too.
I know what it is to live under a constant threat of violence, and of an ever-tightening fist, but not what it is to live under constant threat of death.
If something like what happens in The Handmaid's Tale were to happen in real life, I am acutely aware that I am among the first they would come for. Whatever patriarchal religions think of women, it's a step up from homosexuals, and in their view, transsexuals are gay no matter who they love.
Would society ever come to that? I don't know. I doubt it. But I do know that whatever some people might believe, religious patriarchal men do not have a special place in male privilege reserved for gender traitors like myself.
Steeped so deeply in trans politics versus women's rights, I can't help but wonder: why are we fighting? This whole notion I'm seeing in radical feminist thinking, this idea that transsexuals are trying on womanhood like a halloween costume doesn't always seem right. Because those of us who genuinely do want to expatriate patriarchy, those of us prepared to go all the way, unable to turn back; we are the ones from whom women have the least to fear. I'm not trying on a body; I am living in the same one I was born in, this same androgynous body that would eventually prove defective. People like me, we were never quite like men, even when we tried so, so hard. We're not colonists: we're refugees. There are colonists also, and we sometimes look similar from the outside, but by our actions ye shall know us.
We refugees are personally invested in women's rights, because our fate is entwined with theirs. Maybe we're not the same, but if the flag drops to half mast in remembrance of better days, my femininity will be my undoing or my camouflage. I will either be hung for what I am or saved through stealth. I am invested. Like those born with female bodies, I didn't get to choose to be what I am. My body is what it is, functions how it functions. This isn't about identity.
So these hardline stances I see, these division lines, the demands for respect coupled with the refusals to give it out seem petty on both extremes. Transwomen, even if we take all of the people who are a genuine threat into account, are not the whole picture here. For every JY there are a thousand of us desperately wishing assholes like that would go away so we can keep our heads down and live in peace. But nobody hears our silent members.
The Clymers, Yannivs, and Madigan's of the world are, in fact, trying to colonize womanhood. They don't realize it because they're drunk on the newness of their environment. Yet they've moved to a new ideological continent and are busy building their own culture there, trying to bring their religion to the indigenous people, and being slimy bastards about it. They are celebrating their new nativity with long hair, gold lamé handbags, and eagle feathers on a platform of heretical corpses.
But that's not all of us. Some of us cannot stand the colonizer's culture. Some of us have escaped into the woods, adopted native cultures, abandoned our former lives completely (or are in the process of doing so), and, like those who left the colonies to go native, we're not the colonist's primary targets, but when they come hunting, the sight of us drives everything else out of their minds. We are the gender traitors. We are the heretics.
Creating this kind of distinction between the types seems like a witch hunt because it is. Unless people are openly being Yannivian horrors, our sense for whom is which remains subjective. Every person percieves things differently. Some people are more familiar with the tiny cues that signal someone is trans and can tell the difference entirely by movement. Others focus more on a person's energy: the way they carry and execute their potential. And there is a difference between those of us who are in early transition and those who are not. Some of us can only go so far for financial or medical reasons. Looks aren't always a good indicator. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that looks mean next to nothing, aside from the evidence they provide for how hard a person is trying.
Actions, on the other hand, are. Anyone who says one thing but does another - says they want to be a woman but openly refuses to listen to women as equals, for example - might be worth paying attention to as a potential threat. Sometimes they're just learning. And it's important to remember that a male person disagreeing with a female person does not mean they do not see her as an equal. It just means they disagree on that one point. Neither sex is the Arbiter of Truth.
The TL;DR summary here is this: we need to grow past the judging of groups and instead judge individual members on their actions, the way the law judges individual citizens.
Women can set boundaries without setting barbed wire walls. Transwomen can be a part of a culture without insisting on redefining it before learning how it operates. Women can say no in some places and yes in others. Transwomen can act with respect, respectfully disagree on some issues, and be worthy of trust. It doesn't have to be all yes or all no. And each individual person has the right, and perhaps the moral obligation, to set their own boundaries.
The moment we try to set everyone else's boundaries for them, the moment we decide that We Know Better and that what we're planning is For Their Own Good, then we're taking steps down the path of the cult. Our dystopia will look different than the one in The Handmaid's Tale, but it won't be any less evil.