“Gender is the poetry each of us makes out of the language we are taught.” —Leslie Feinberg, 1949-2014
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs with boys who called me an “it” and a “faggot”—the same boys who made anti-Semitic jokes and carved Swastikas into their desks, whose parents were not impoverished, salt-of-the-earth rural Americans but brain surgeons and corporate lawyers, former NFL quarterbacks and devisers of complicated financial instruments. A couple of them called me one night in seventh grade on the Mickey Mouse phone in my bedroom. “Hey, is Phoebe there?” one said in an affectedly high-pitched, breathy voice. The other cackled. I clutched the receiver closer to my ear, and a buzzing started in my brain that blocked out the sound of cars passing outside the window. “This is Katie.”
Katie was a girl in my grade, conventionally attractive and popular, while I had an awkward-looking pixie cut that I sometimes parted down the middle, and all my jeans fit wrong. “And I’d really, really like to have sex with you.” More cackling. The buzzing intensified, partitioning me from that moment, from my body, from most of what they said next while I stood gripping the phone, not interjecting, face furnace-hot with humiliation. One of the boys called me a pervert, this time in his normal register, and hung up. That epithet— pervert —became my self-concept for years; that there was something fundamentally wrong with me was my underlying core belief.
I first heard of Leslie Feinberg’s semi-autobiographical novel, Stone Butch Blues, as an undergrad, after coming out as a lesbian, an announcement I would later retract. Stripping away the rationalizations that had enabled me to remain closeted regarding my fluid sexuality forced me to look at my gender, and the fluidity I found there, too, confused and terrified me. In order to read the story of Jess Goldberg, the narrator of Stone Butch Blues, I had to overcome my fear of a kind of death—the death of my desire to be normal—at which point I would start becoming myself.
Feinberg, unlike me, did not identify as a trans man but as a butch lesbian who existed in a gender-liminal state. Although I’ve never been particularly butch, nor “stone” (a term used in lesbian communities to refer to a top who prefers not to be genitally touched), and though the majority of my sexual partners have been men, the candor with which Feinberg wrote about Jess’s romantic and sexual life provided me one model of a nonbinary person negotiating their relationship to their body.
Feinberg’s descriptions of Jess’s intimacy with her partners—the frankness with which prostheses and the effects of past trauma are addressed, the disregard for the cis male gaze, the lack of shame or at least of self-condemnation—let me know that another kind of love was possible.
When I told a friend of mine how upset I was with Donald Trump’s transgender military ban tweet, I felt ashamed. I’ve never experienced familial or economic pressure to join the armed forces, and white masc privilege mostly inoculates me against the worst of interpersonal and structural transphobia. As memes about Trump’s tweet popped up in my Facebook newsfeed, I wondered how many of the cis people posting understood that while gender-confirming surgeries can indeed be prohibitively expensive for trans individuals, they constitute a negligible percentage of the US military’s budget. Hormone therapy and surgery are, for the trans people who do require them, not cosmetic or elective, but necessary to survive.
While I now realize that hormone therapy isn’t a magic cure for depression and anxiety, I felt last summer that if I didn’t begin testosterone I would end up killing myself. I’d mostly kept the severity of my suicidal ideation plausibly deniable, even to myself, much like my transness. I didn’t need to medically transition, I told myself for nine months after coming out. I was afraid of the cost financially, professionally, socially, romantically. Many cis people seem to feel that to medically transition is to mutilate yourself.
One of my mom’s best friends, like an aunt to me, visited last summer. We had a tense dinner, during which she referred to me as my mother’s “daughter” more than once, but we ultimately skirted the subject. Finally, she urged me to Google a former trans woman who now speaks at churches about detransitioning. “I just don’t want you to make choices you might later regret,” she said, grasping my forearm, her eyebrows knitted with earnest concern.
My stomach hollowed out with as much anxiety as anger. I’ve never experienced the kind of body horror regarding my breasts that I hear other trans men and transmasculine people describe, yet I do wish I had pecs instead. But what if my mom’s friend was right? What if I had surgery and was unhappy with the results?
My own friends mostly reacted with a kind of instinctive squeamishness, encouraging me to be Absolutely Certain before starting hormones or pursuing surgery, their own horror at the thought obvious—several cis women reflexively clutched their chests while laughing nervously. While some trans people fit the narrative of reaching complete self-awareness as toddlers, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt perfectly certain of anything in my life.
“You haven’t had preparation,” my friend, a Jewish woman, explained. By this, she meant that I’d had no parent who could prepare me. Her mother had taught her what it meant to be a Jew in the world, taught her to understand that “never again” meant vigilance. My mother, a straight cis woman, could not possibly warn me of what might be ahead in an America intent on returning to the queerphobic cultural mores of her childhood. “I just think of you as a person,” or conversely, “Do you think there will ever be a time where you can just be a person?” are comments I hear regularly from cis people above a certain age—they are really asking that I not “inconvenience” others by requesting male pronouns, despite the patience with accidental misgendering I happily afford anyone who has an open heart and is willing to try. As if personhood were incompatible with being trans.
I know that when my mother discouraged me from coming out, first as queer and later as trans, she was trying to protect me from other people’s judgment. But I needed preparation, not protection. I needed to see myself as a part of history, to understand how that history influenced the present and the potential future. As Feinberg documented in hir book Transgender Warriors, people have existed across the gender spectrum throughout recorded human history, not only in Native American and Southeast Asian cultures but in Western Europe as well.
Outside certain circles, Feinberg’s remarkable life as an author and radical organizer is hardly remembered. Stone Butch Blues, Feinberg’s foundational, identity-affirming text, is out of print. In one particularly poignant passage, Jess dreams that she is in a house filled with the spirits of other trans and gender nonconforming people, both ancestors and those to come, surrounded by lineage, engulfed in a profound feeling of wholeness. Like a rite of passage, reading Stone Butch Blues ushered me into the bolder and more expansive life that was waiting.