Friday 12 October 2012

Transformative works

kaberettPosted by kaberett

this is my skeleton
this is the skin it's in
that is, according to light
and gravity
i'll take off my disguise
the mask you met me in
'cuz i got something
for you to see
– Ani DiFranco, Shameless

Every day of my life is a transformative work.

“She”, they call me, or “What's wrong with your legs?”, they ask, or “We don't really need to tell the extended family this, do we?”

I was assigned female at birth. I started binding in 2009. I was diagnosed with endometriosis in 2010: I'd been symptomatic for six years. In 2011, I changed my name and started using a walking stick (and that's Ani's fault – but a story for another time). In 2012, I started using a wheelchair.

One way or another, I seem to spend an awful lot of my time transitioning: between gender roles, between modes of apparent ability. As I become more visibly trans*, as I become more visibly disabled – as I remake myself into something to live with, rather than something to live through with gritted teeth – parallels become more and more obvious to me.

That I am using a walking stick today, and was using my wheelchair yesterday, doesn't mean I'm “better”: it means that the awkwardness of the chair outweighed its benefits. That I use feminine pronouns in some situations instead of my generally preferred neuter ones does not, for me, mean that I'm not genderqueer; definitely doesn't mean I'm not trans*.

It just means that sometimes I get tired: of needing to go an extra half mile to get to dropped kerbs; of the Victorian prescriptivist arguments over the epicene pronoun; of needing to remember that car drivers behave strangely when you are in a chair; of the looks on people's faces at my long hair, or when I stand up to fetch something from a shelf.

Sometimes it is easier to wear a mask and play pretend than it is to patrol my borders.

One way or another, I spend a lot of time performing my identities. In public, in my chair, I have the choice of being authentically me – of standing, of lifting my chair up stairs, of not allowing society's assumptions to disable me further – or I can let the fear keep me sitting, keep me smiling, keep me asking for help, keep me from slamming on the brakes whenever anyone touches my chair without permission. I can dutifully bind every day, facing down the chronic fatigue to make sure laundry happens when it needs to for that to not be kinda unpleasant... or I could listen to and respect my body and get misgendered more frequently.

In my experience? The “oh dear it's a wheelchair how do we deal with that” face has an awful lot in common with the “oh god they're going to demand gender-neutral markers in the records aren't they” face. The overbearing concern and the overwriting of my autonomy are common to both: “Well, if you're sure...”

And so I end up performing my identity. I suppose, at least, I'm not without choice in which role to play: like I say, I can be exaggeratedly a good crip, a good genderqueer person, and fit people's expectations; or I can be aggressively and ostentatiously myself and stare down the world with it.

But neither of those are easy options.

And yet. There is Рas ever, as in clich̩ Рa third option. And that is to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and make a public space for my private self Рto do out loud the work I've been doing inside my head for years.

I was a field geologist. I was a hiker. Recognising that those aren't things I can do any more – that I'll likely never do fieldwork on Mount Erebus, Antarctica; that it's going to be a long time before I get up to a 3000m peak under my own steam again, if it ever happens; that the Hangerer, Austria is going to remain on my list of Unfinished Business – is, yes, a loss. Saying goodbye to my childhood nicknames and to ticking “F” on forms without compunction wasn't all that much easier, honestly.

did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage...

But I couldn't keep it up. A major part of fieldwork is knowing when you're hitting your limits – and how to avoid getting yourself killed. There is only so hard I can push myself, so far I can go, before I have to face up to the fact that I need to stop: this far and no further, or, more often, that far and no further, the line way out of sight behind me. (And I want to note here that a major part of the trans* experience, though thankfully not part of my trans* experience so far, is also how to avoid getting killed.)

Here is what I am learning: how to recognise my boundaries. How to enforce them. How to treat myself with kindness. When to fight, and when I'm better off saving the energy for another day.

Have my body's limits – in terms of physical activity; in terms of tolerating recognition as female – shifted? Yes, they have. But this is not limitation and it is not weakness: I am listening to myself, and I am learning myself.

And in that there is strength.

We are a work in progress, my body and myself, but I refuse to regard myself as defective, as a failure, as a cosmic error to be struggled against and overcome. I'm reframing myself for myself, and for my audience: this is the only body I get, and for some things it works marvellously and for others it doesn't, and that is not a failing.

All it is is variation.