by Asha Britt
“Transwomen aren’t men,” I find myself insisting on Twitter for the umpteenth time, “we’re transwomen. We’re our own thing.”
“What does the word “man” mean to you?” Asks Fionne Orlander, quite reasonably. My answer, however, rapidly left the realm of reason and jumped right into fantasy. The word “man”, to me, has always had a deep history to it. It represents something powerful, dark, and impossible to achieve. In fact, I once wrote a free-association description of a Man:
There is a figure, beautifully muscled and broad shouldered, shirtless, his tattooed arms outstretched and fingers splayed like the wings of an eagle. He stands in front of the sun and protects you from it, becoming both silhouette and internal detail, so powerful that he is opaque. His musculature comes from activity, and breaks the light across his dark skin. There are eagle feathers in his hair. There is a feeling eminating from him that makes me want to bow to him, worship him. Lust for him. His power rides him like the blade of an untested Katana, dangerous yet pure.
The first thing that ought to be obvious here is that whatever my imagination thinks a man is, it clearly has very little to do with actual men.
“The problem,” says Fionne as the Twitter conversation continues, “is that you’ve got a romantic idea of what a man is, but a man is just an adult human male. It’s nothing more than that. It’s neutral.”
At first, I didn’t like this idea, because the thing about romance is that calling attention to it tends to spoil it. Moreover, the word “romance” in and of itself tends to be romanticized, which really doesn’t help. All my life, I’ve resisted seeing myself as a man, because it has always felt like a lofty goal I was barred from achieving.
In fact, the more I consider the notion of romantic attachment to words, the more it sheds light on my issues with identity. However, exploring these feelings and attachments wasn’t enough to change my perspective on a deeper level: I needed one thing more.
Right now, I am perched on a seat of the top deck of the X43 bus to Manchester, and absolutely brimming with introspective questions. The sun is slowly dripping through the sixteenth hour, and my body jerks back and forth with the rhythm of the bus as we make our way through the English countryside. At first, what struck me about England were the differences, but now it’s the similarities that keep jumping out- the way the bus stations are the same, or the way people walk. The same schizophrenic weather. It’s the same trees and flowers, though northern England is absolutely infested with daffodils. It’s a strange flower- it seems so happily at odds with the dreary weather. On that level, at least, I am beginning to identify with them.
Manchester high-rises pop up in the distance as if the island were simply a cardboard book, and as beautiful as it is, I decide to ignore it and focus instead on my work.
Before Fionne confronted me with the notion that trans people are usually very guilty of romanticizing the words “man” and “woman”, I had thought that we only romanticized the word for the kind of person we wished to become. Since my aim in transition was focused on not being seen as a man, rather than being seen as a woman, I had thought myself relatively unaffected by magical thinking.
Boy, was I wrong.
While the word “woman” did, in fact, mean “adult human female” to me, the word “man” was inorexiably bound up in all kinds of positive and negative romances. The more I considered this and understood it, the more I began to realize that I was also wrong about my definition of the word “woman”, because I did, in fact, romance that as well.
On some level, I imagined the feminine social role, with all it’s misogynistic challenges, as a kind of alternative environment away from the constant social pressures of masculine conformity. The thing I imagine when I picture life after a successful transition isn’t me with a female body, but me with social and physical freedom. I dream of the ability to wear colors and styles I like and to flirt with men without encountering constant resistance or homophobia. I dream of waking up in the morning and touching my face and not encountering my father’s, instead. And I dream of what it might be like to make love to someone and understand my role on a deeply physical level. I don’t picture the act itself so much as how it must feel to be with someone and instinctively know how to enjoy it. To have the way my body is instinctively set up to be the status quo, with no dangling bits of useless flesh blocking me from the ability to physically connect to another person.
In general, I try not to think of these things. They are not my reality. And thinking of what I do not have only brings me pain. Instead, I shut myself off as much as possible, put one foot in front of another, and keep on going. But clearly, I have quite a lot more romance wrapped up in these words than I had ever realized.
I have a lot of thinking to do, yet.
A few days later, I find myself lounging on a twin-size English bed. I love English bedding- it’s so sensible! In the US, making a bed is a complex process of putting all these different kinds of sheet together, and making it up in the morning is a pain. In England, they dispense with the silliness and simply put a duvet on a comforter and that’s it. It’s easy to get into, easy to remake. I love it. But I digress.
I’ve been considering the notion of romancing the words quite a bit over the past few days as I travel England from checkpoint to checkpoint, sometimes staring out the coach window for hours, sometimes while lugging around baggage I definitely packed too much of, and sometimes during the various conversations I’ve been blessed to take part in.
Sometimes these conversations wax difficult, sometimes less so. But I have been testing this new, less romantic perspective. As I continue to do so, I’m discovering something interesting: the combination of applying this perspective and having met Fionne and Hex has stabilized my sense of identity in a way I haven’t felt, perhaps ever.
For me, this is monumental.
The truth is that I have been wavering. My sense of identity has been continually cycling between three major points, each of which is quickly invalidated by something within me that refuses to accept myself as any of them. Having been freed of the chains of romance, I’m suddenly able to see this cycle differently, and it’s a good thing, too.
After my Orchiectomy, things began to spiral a bit out of control. While the surgery improved my health enough to make a trip to England possible for me, it posed a powerful challenge to my sense of identity. I was now totally committed to being a transwoman.
This ought to have been fine. After all, I’d been doing quite well up to that point. But I hadn’t counted on the psychological effects of being past a point of no return. And I had severely underestimated my own internalized prejudices. This combination ejected me into a kind of identity spiral, and each time I rejected one mental picture of myself it would take me deeper into the abyss before latching on to the next. I have been more suicidal since my surgery than I have since my mid-twenties. Why?
When you’re trapped in a whirlpool, it can be very difficult to see how you ended up there. We have a tendency to blame whatever seems the most obvious, anything, especially, but our own prejudice. As I cycled through identities, my sense of blame constantly shifted from one group of people to another and then would flip back to myself. Each time it did, it felt real.
While I was able to hold on to just enough patience to realize that I wasn’t myself, and therefore should do my best to avoid posting much on social media, I was writing furiously. Each spiral took me further into despair until I began to believe that the only way I’d survive was to drink the koolaid, so to speak, embrace orthodox trans ideas, and drop out of the debate in shame. I knew on a deep level that this would be the wrong move, the cowardly one, but the despair I was feeling was rapidly becoming stronger than my mind.
Romance, it seems, is really quite dangerous.
“You know, hen” begins Seven Hex in her incredibly Scottish accent, “you can always just be a badass transwoman”.
It’s not as though this had never occurred to me before. In fact, the modt basic premise of the TransRational manifesto is based in this exact notion. But in the physical presence of Fionne and Seven Hex, the idea that this was a realistic possibility seemed in evidence as it never had before. Before I met them, it was just an idea. I wasn’t really sure how it would work. Both Fi and Hex were good examples of this principle, and what’s more, I felt a kinship with them I had never felt with other transwomen. Many of our experiences were the same, many were different, but I feel that there is something that links us: a desire to live authentically and without illusion. We are what we are. What we’ve chosen to be. We own it, but not with entitlement.
Early in transition, I attended a transwomen’s support group. Rather than feeling like a group of women, it vibed like twenty-odd men engaged in live-action roleplay. People spent an inordinate amount of time talking about their trans identities in exactly the same way I’ve seen men wax romantic about their wood elf wizard who is special because blah blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy, but I’ve never quite understood the excitement in LARPing. Go for it, have fun, but like, don’t try to convince the world you really are Killjam Jellydeath the Marmamancer. If you really want to be seen as something in the world, you have to actually become it. Behave like it. And if I look, behave, and move like a man, it’s both delusional and entitled for me to expect others to see a woman.
This isn’t a pleasant truth, and it’s something that a lot of trans people actively fight. The notion that we can’t ever achieve our romantic ideal paints a picture of pointlessness. If we can’t actually transition and become the thing we so desperately want to be, what’s the point of transition? Shouldn’t there be a reward at the end of all this pain? Don’t we deserve more than this?
Discarding all romance, speaking in the most alkaline truth possible, the process of transition can only take me from man to trans. If eliminating the physical and social dysphoria I’m experiencing isn’t enough of a goal on it’s own, then I have deeper issues that need to be resolved. Body modification isn’t magic, and identity is not a sole proprietorship. It’s fine to work to be percieved as something new, but if we, as trans people, genuinely expect the rest of the world to see us the way we see ourselves, we’re naïve at best and delusional at worst. It’s romance. And the thing about that is:
Romance always fades.
I want to leave you with a parting thought, and I feel this is important:
The root of despair is the presence of false hope.
It’s not the absence of hope- any Buddhist monk will tell you that total absence of hope actually reveals a kind of flow state of total acceptance. No hope means no longing, no desire.
False hope, on the other hand, is insidious. It roots itself in your soul, twisting you into knots of pulsing, aching desire for something that can’t ever be. False hope is impossible romance. It’s unrequitable love. It’s the desperate desire to reach up, pluck a star from the sky, and hang it around your neck like a pendant. It’s pining away because you’ve reached out a thousand times and it still isn’t working.
Romancing a desire for the impossible brings tremendous pain. Especially when we have felt that desire so often and so intensely that we begin to identify with it. Or as it. Thus, there is no state in which I can desire to become a woman in which I’ll end up finding peace.
The way forward, then, is to drop the romance in favor of a rational and defensible position:
Transmen are Transmen. Transwomen are Transwomen.
We become these things by virtue of having completed a rite of passage. It’s a state of becoming; a thing we’ve earned.
Instead of trying to become what we’re not, let’s set our focus on finding out what we actually are. There’s plenty of room for romance in the unknowns that compose our unique potential, and we don’t need to infringe on anyone’s rights to accomplish this. The simple, subversive act of embracing ourselves as what we are, rather than as something we’re not transforms enemies to allies.
This is the sustainable path forward.
This is how we thrive.