Who Do You Think You Are?

Chapter 5: Serial Metamorphosis

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Urbana Conference, 2009 (my first year of college). I travel to St. Louis with my newfound Christian community, hungry to rededicate myself to the Lord, to activate my spiritual potential.

I'm drawn to a panel about homosexuality. In it, Christians talk about their struggles with same-sex attractions, and argue for the church to take a fundamentally different approach to LGBT issues. To place love above all else, and to break down the stigma surrounding certain kinds of struggles. I am deeply moved and inspired, and I purchase the book Love is an Orientation by Andrew Marin. Since arriving at college, I've looked up to my New Student Week leader and dorm RA, an anarchist lesbian woman and a soft, caring gay man. I dread the prospect of having to look upon them or anyone else in judgement. I think of my own horrifying sexuality, and know that I am worse than anyone.

An older couple, Peter and Fran, live near campus in my college town, and are a guiding force in the Christian community on campus. In a car headed back from Urbana, Fran sees my book and cautions me about Andrew Marin, saying his teachings aren't rooted in Scripture.

- --x-x-x-- -

I grew up reading books from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time series, but in college, I devour her entire body of fiction. It's strange to see such a deeply, meaningfully Christian author create a body of artistic work that seems so wholly unconcerned with its relationship to evangelism. L'Engle's first and arguably most autobiographical novel, The Small Rain, follows a young woman named Katherine Forrester. Decades later, L'engle published a sequel to The Small Rain. It follows a now elderly Katherine, who, despite having friends in the clergy, is solidly and comfortably nontheistic.

I have always agonized over the relationship between my responsibilities as an artist and as a Christian. I hunger to face and understand the complexities of life and human relationships, and yet it still feels transgressive and dangerous to let a character escape a work unsaved. Like a sort of Chekhov's Nonbeliever.

L'Engle writes her non-Christian characters with a fundamental sense of shared human experience, and it gives me some kind of hope. As an artist. As a human.

- --x-x-x-- -

I hover around the Ragstock in my small college town. A group of teen girls enters the store, talking and laughing, and I flee into a deeper section. I thumb through a rack of men's pants without really looking at them.

It's not that I'm a girl. I just think that anyone should be able to wear anything. It's not even about me, really, it just makes simple sense. Clothing is just fabric in shapes. It would be silly to think that I could escape my own masculinity. That is beside the point.

The girls leave, and I find some capris that fit me. They are in the women's section, but they're just jeans anyway. They're just short jeans. I try on some cute shirts and realize that they're far too small for me, that I'd rip them if I put them on all the way. I feel ridiculous for thinking that they could have fit me.

I bring my purchases to the register. My friend who makes comics and works in the school library rings me up. Years later, we will both be beautiful girls, but I couldn't know that now. I can't tell if I'm more relieved or more nervous that it is my friend here, scanning the price tags on my subtly feminine clothing, shrouded in her characteristic knit sweaters, versus a stranger.

- --x-x-x-- -

Halloween, my 3rd year of college. Over summer break, I had made a cardboard lightsaber with a blade recycled from a cheap Fourth of July toy. To complete the look, I go into my closet for the plain, burgundy "vintage dress" I'd bought from Ragstock. "It's like a Jedi robe", I had thought, when I first tried it on. I wear it over a pair of men's black jeans.

Halloween falls on a weekday, and I go to a printmaking class in costume. My friend Alyssa sticks her finger directly at me and announces to the class, "Why is [Marina] wearing a dress?!!" I hold up my lightsaber. "It's like a Jedi robe," I say. Later in class, a lesbian classmate comes up to me and says, "I saw you walking into the art building and thought to myself, 'who is that cute girl?'" I smile, and I feel good things, complicated things, that I don't understand.

- --x-x-x-- -

I follow trans porn performers on tumblr and think about the details of their bodies. At first I feel a sort of validation of their womanhood by my own attraction to them as women. One performer stops posting as much porn and talks about her love of skateboarding and her struggles with her parents. I feel protective of her womanhood in a way that goes beyond her beauty. I just want her to be happy.

- --x-x-x-- -

My first year out of college, I'm living in Portland, Maine. I have a bunch of hand-me-down odds and ends from my transmasculine partner. I look at a cute pair of panties, made of some impossibly soft and smooth material. Before I can hardly start slipping them over my legs, I have an erection. In the face of the terrifying aura of femininity and the transgression of wielding it for myself, my body can do nothing but react with forceful titillation.

How do real trans women do this? How can they possibly "tuck" and "pass" and all these other things I've heard of? I am not like them. I will never transcend the terrifying and monotonous power of my own hard dick.

- --x-x-x-- -

I find a few volumes of a manga called Wandering Son (Hourou Musuko) by Takako Shimura at the Portland Public Library. The main characters are elementary school children who grow up throughout the series and experience gender dysphoria in the context of school, modeling, friendships, and family.

I have never seen dysphoria depicted like this before: the soft, beautiful drawings, the small, tentative victories and failures, the tender navigation of gendered honorifics in how the characters refer to each other. I never knew that gendered longing could be so achingly simple and pure.

As a child, I never conceived of such desires. And yet, as I follow the journeys of Nitorin and Takatsuki-kun, I can feel a small, childlike part of me awaken, deep inside. A sweet, perfect, irrevocable desire to exist outside of manhood.

- --x-x-x-- -

A cute, nerdy trans girl I follow on twitter shares a little video. She's talking over some video game footage or something, but she says that it's voice training. I didn't know it was possible for a trans girl to sound like this... to my ear, she sounds indistinguishable from a cis girl.

- --x-x-x-- -

Koren, a professional pirate performer, compliments some of my feminine photos on Facebook. We'd met years ago, at a national classics convention (it was like a summer camp for people who took Latin in high school??). Somehow we ended up as the tenor section of a small chorus, even though I'm not sure I was actually a tenor. We hung out later in the week a bit and danced. We had a funny sort of connection, though I couldn't say what it was. Did I like Koren? Did Koren like me? Did I think they were weird?

Now, years later, Koren mentions being trans as a point of solidarity, and it's like a dense cloud of fog lifts from my memories. I realize that back in high school I had not known if Koren was a boy or a girl. I think he was already out as a guy, and in the years since I had decided conclusively that he was. "What was I thinking?" I had said to myself. "Of course he's a guy." I couldn't yet comprehend the idea of not being able to tell someone's gender implicitly.

At the convention, Koren had been one of the only people I talked to besides my friends from school. How strange now, to both be trans. How far my brain had had to crawl from that one summer, years ago, when two strange kids happened to sing a tenor part together.

What Do You Hope To Gain?