Yesterday, on the way to a nonbinary and gender nonconforming art event (where I got to do a bit of art modeling for the first time in 15 years), I had the urge to make an attempt (not my first) to clarify my gender identity and general thoughts on gender/sex in (I hope) simple, direct prose. Later in this post I’ll share a new poem and talk about some others that deal with being transgender, and how they do and don’t communicate identity.
The most descriptive single word for my gender is “nonbinary.” Before I start unpacking that term, l should clarify that I’m speaking of gender as distinct from physiological sex. (The Genderbread Person is still my favorite breakdown of the distinctions between gender identity, gender expression and biological sex.)
Those who’ve read Courting Hunger will know what reproductive function I’ve played. Sex can be divided into a binary of “maleness” and “femaleness,” but that doesn’t mean we’re all ones or zeroes (intersex people excepted, or forgotten, or denied). It means we’re each composed of both ones and zeroes. Most of us are either a lot of ones and a few zeroes or a lot of zeros and a few ones, but to be something of both is the norm. Most of us don’t know exactly what our individual proportions are. We have not, perhaps, tested our chromosomes or hormone levels.
And that ratio of zeroes and ones changes throughout our lives. I have to wonder, does a person really have the same sex before, during and after so dramatic a change as puberty? Is the male/female binary really the most meaningful way to categorize sex? Are the deliberate ways we moderate our sexes less real than the automatic ones? I have taken hormones and had surgery that altered my sexual characteristics because I’m transgender. Others undertake those actions for a variety of reasons—menopause, fertility, sterility, virility, cancer. Does the motivation make the change less meaningful to the person living through it?
However we divide it, physiological sex isn’t simple, and neither is gender, with its additional complications of social and personal definition. When I say I’m nonbinary, I mean that I reject the notion that anyone’s maleness and femaleness has to define who they are—at least, no more than the many subsets of human physiology by which no one defines their identity—and that I will not passively allow socially defined and enforced gender to determine who I am or how I define others. I also mean I am not a boy or a girl, a woman or a man, a he or a she.
My transgender-related poems tend to focus on specific moments rather than broader questions of identity, and I suspect that might make my gender identity unclear to those who know it only through my poetry.
The only poem in god-chaser that deals with being transgender is “in transit,” which tells the story of my quest for testosterone 20 years ago. It is explicitly nonbinary—”I just couldn’t find the none-of-the-above box under ‘sex'”—though actually at that time I thought that not being a woman meant being a man (a temporary mistake, like the brief period during adolescence when I tried to be a girl). I added that line to the poem because Bob suggested it ought to be clearer what my present conception of my gender is, and accomplishing that without disrupting the immediacy of the poem was more important to me than historical precision.
Courting Hunger includes several transgender-related poems. “Before I heard of transgender” describes how at age 4, the gender identity declarations of my fellow toddlers prompted me to consider my own gender and to conclude that I wasn’t a boy or a girl, though I also knew what others would say I was, and how I tried to find a way to express that. “Compassion,” “Rites of Passage,” “Original Cum” and “Pinocchio” describe experiences around the time I was taking testosterone. I worry that the lines in “Pinocchio”—”Was that the night I knew / I didn’t want to be a real boy?”—might confuse readers, but I hope it’s clear that “real boy” has a narrow contextual meaning. It may not be also clear that the rejection of masculine identity was in addition to, not instead of, the earlier rejection of feminine identity. I hope, at least, that poems appearing later in the book—”Coming out” and “Don’t say ‘transgender'”—make it clear that “Pinocchio” doesn’t signify the end of my transgender identity. “Don’t say ‘transgender'” gives a conjectural account of my plans for top surgery, based on the sort of hurdles others have had to face, which bears no resemblance to how the actual surgery worked out, which was a good deal better. So far, this new poem is the only one which makes reference to the actual surgery:
The Truth #81
The one who thinks she’s a little girl
confronts me by the sinks
as I close the door on sunlight.
She sets her lips in grim pout, folds slender
arms about her chest, indignant at
the man in the women’s portapotty.
Perhaps seeing the ends of mastectomy
scars snaking from beneath the hems
of an orange tank and under my arms,
her mother apologizes for her. But
the one who thinks she’s a little girl
isn’t wrong about me, and I prefer
the honest asshole a child can be.
I’m trying to hint at “nonbinary” here, but I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded. “Consumers,” appearing in the chapbook Call Me Crazy, also hints. A recent poem included in my last post, “The Welcoming Committee,” deals broadly with the idea of gender role enforcement.
The books mentioned here are available through the Books page in print and/or as free ebooks.