Monday, 22 April 2013

Life through a lens

I've spent the past year and a half internalising what behaviour is expected of a man. At first, it was entertaining; it was amusing to rewire my conditioning, to project somebody different. I was, possibly for the first time in my life, "performing gender".

I'm starting to get sick of this performance.

Some demands of masculinity I just refuse to comply with - the conscious, nagging, self-second-guessing ones. For instance, being socialised as female, I never learnt to suppress the instinct to flail and squee. Now that I live as male, I will not police my expressions of happiness and excitement simply for fear of looking effete. (While I was living as female, I never much wanted to flail or squee, so I'm damn well going to do it now.) But others have taken hold of me by stealth: insidious, subconscious.

There should not be a social pecking order for who is expected to move out of the way of whom on a stairwell. I should not think of it as reflecting on my gender if I move or if I stand my ground. I absolutely should not start instinctively assuming that if a woman's coming the other way, the cultural onus is on her to move.

I'm not performing masculinity. I'm performing being a dick.

Maybe I'm doing it wrong. It would be nice to think so. But I know that we all grow up surrounded by gendered expectations, expectations which can't help but have some kind of an effect on how we behave. I know, because I spent my entire youth picking them out, and stubbornly rejecting them.

If I hadn't been raised as a girl, I might never have come to experience myself as a man.

I have always hated being seen as something I'm not, or being seen distorted through the lens of one aspect of myself. I hated that the ways I behaved could be written off as not simply me, my marvellous unique personality, but as "typical for a girl". So I changed how I behaved, determined to defy expectation. I exaggerated everything about myself that was "tomboyish"; I worked on it, I performed it.

I don't know how I would have turned out if I hadn't been born with a vulva. I honestly don't know what's "inherently-male-me" and what's just the byproduct of rebellious reverse conditioning. I was shaped by gendered expectations: so determined not to be seen through the "girl" lens that I pushed myself to its edges, let myself become distorted. Those lenses will get you in the end.

And now it's happening again. There's a tension between my desire to hold on to my true self, and my painful awareness that my masculinity is, culturally, somewhat lacking. I want to prove that you can be a man without being A Man (TM), but I'm constantly tempted to tone my effeminate self down by way of overcompensation. Same shit, different lens.

Everything I do, I can feel the lenses flipping. Say one day I feel like wearing stockings. That makes me a saucy vixen. No, flip the lens. It makes me an outrageous cross-dresser. Better, or worse? Say I break out in road rage while cycling over a dangerous junction. That makes me a pre-menstrual bitch. Flip the lens. That makes me a macho arsehole. Better, or worse? How about now?

How about no?

Can I not just be a person who likes the feel of stockings? (The long answer is no, I can't: I'm a person who, due to long years of conditioning, derives a sense of daring thrill from wearing an item culturally coded as feminine and therefore implicitly degrading. But let's not worry about that right now.) Can I not just be a person who gets pissed off at getting cut up? The thing is, I can't. Society doesn't work that way. And whether I stay like this, with my feminine face and high-pitched voice, or whether I go through second puberty, I'm still going to be read through one lens or the other, all the time, whatever I do. Subtly, innocently, subconsciously, maybe - but everyone I meet will pick a lens.

I wonder, when you get right down to it, whether transition can help me at all. My objection is to being seen as what I'm expected to be, not what I am. But surely it's churlish to expect to be seen always and solely as my true self? It is, after all, a luxury that's afforded to few. Who doesn't have to negotiate being seen as "short", "pretty", "Asian", "wheelchair-bound", "middle-class", "fat" (etc, etc, etc) first and having a personality second? How many of us don't get so used to being seen through the same lens, time and time again, that our interactions get coloured by our expectations of how other people will respond to us?

Some time ago, I learnt the phrase "social dysphoria". As I understand it, this refers to the aspect of gender dysphoria which involves intense dissatisfaction with the gendered way one is treated in social interactions. But I couldn't help wondering where the line is drawn between "social dysphoria" as a manifestation of trans*-ness, and simply as a reasonable reaction to REALLY FUCKING STUPID social conventions. Are women who dislike being subjected to sexual innuendo in the workplace suffering from "social dysphoria"? Are people of colour who dislike being randomly stopped and searched suffering from "social dysphoria"? Are disabled people who dislike being ignored and talked past suffering from "social dysphoria"? Is the solution for everyone to "transition" to being white, male, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied? Or - here's a novel idea - is the solution maybe for society to sort its fucking shit out?

I don't feel as though "female" is what I am. But my identity has been shaped by the pressures of being "female". And everyone's identity is, to some extent, shaped by "who they are" - by how they react to the lenses through which they're seen. Do they try to fight it, or fit it? Do they try to become as "normal" as they can, or do they wear their difference like armour? Do they play up to the stereotype, seeing its advantages or hoping for a quiet life, or do they do their darnedest to smash it? And how can they possibly be sure what's "the real me" in amongst all that?

I look back on myself, and see a childhood and pubescence littered with smashed lenses. I forged myself in the heat of blind fury against all I was "expected" to be. Perhaps, for me, with my nebulous sense of "subconscious sex", turning out as cis or trans* wasn't a matter of my "innate gender", but of whether I buckled down or whether I rebelled. And boy, am I a stubborn fucker.

Defence mechanisms. Attack mechanisms. Safety mechanisms. All these conditioned, mechanised behaviours overriding spontaneous expressions of our "true selves" - until they become our true selves. This is how the lenses burn us. And only after eighteen months living full-time as male am I starting to see my scar tissue. To wonder what's really underneath. To question whether my transition is an act of empowering rebellion, or yet another step along a path of twisted conformity, bending under the unbearable pressure of social expectations.

Given that my first Gender Identity Clinic appointment is in a week and a half, it's not the best timing.

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