A few weeks ago, I started articulating one of the most central aspects of my experience as a trans woman: the notion of being an ‘aesthetic warrior’.
I want to start to unpack this concept.
Any given trans person, and particularly any given transfeminine person, is in a constant state of conflict with mainstream culture. This is, in practice, a conflict that I feel is best analogized to warfare, both by the precept that “all’s fair in love and war”, and that there are untold casualties of this conflict.
When it comes to integrating into Western culture as a transgender person, all are wounded by the forces of violence towards our very existence.
Many have died; many are dying; many will continue to die.
A brief history of Western gender-variant terminology:
For the first centuries of its collective existence, post-Enlightenment European culture denied that gender-variant people existed in any respectable, and/or respectful, sense.
We were deviants, nothing more.
Within the culture, we functionally did not exist, though we might find a place within a local gay subculture, such as at molly houses.
Eventually, the term “transvestism” was coined in 1910, by a German doctor-advocate that may well have performed the first known sexual reassignment surgery in Western history. The term was intended to be as broad as possible with respect to cross-dressing; it subsequently became a psychiatric diagnosis indicating mental illness, and the term carries the weight of that pathologizing to this day.
The most memorable historical marker for the change from “transvestite” to “transgender” is the name of the gay liberation organization STAR, started by revolutionary gay/trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Formed in 1970, the organization was named Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
At the same time as this organization was founded, the idea of “transgender” was being popularized in the more erudite, moneyed, and White corners of the discourse. This tension eventually led to transgender as a dominant terminology, with “transvestism” retaining its association with cross-dressing. Eventually, it came to be broadly understood that “transvestism” was something you did, and “transgender” was who you were.
When Sylvia Rivera re-formed STAR some years after the passing of Marsha P. Johnson, “transgender” was substituted for “transvestite”. I would guess that Marsha P. Johnson would have approved of this had she lived to see it, but I am also quite sure that she would also have had her own choice opinions to share about the matter.
It was no coincidence that the terminology of “transgender” came with increased access to medical resources for transition – access which was heavily informed by racial dynamics and classism. These rifts of the usage of “gay” (meaning specifically homosexual) and “transgender” identities led to radical reclamation of the slur “queer” among those opposed to the efforts at assimilation by people with relative privilege, leading to the memorable saying, “Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you.”
Today, the ‘alphabet soup’ era of acronyms such as “LGBTQ2IA+” has mostly resolved to “LGBT” in mainstream discourse, and “LGBTQ/LGBTQ+” among people ‘in the know’. Umbrella references to two-spirit identities of indigenous Americans (“2”) and non-Western conceptualizations of gender (much of “+”) have generally been colonialist and destructive; intersex folk (“I”) are generally excluded from most conversations on gender and sexual diversity as a bridge too far; and asexual folk (“A”) as a collective movement have been less than engaging, often with similar dynamics of privilege in relation to the LGBT community as the “transgender” vs. “transvestite” divide.
I give this overview of the history of terminology to make the point that the identity of “transgender” is living history within Western society.
The phenomenon of being outside the cisgender binary is not new – but the broader scope of acceptance and tolerance, and the accompanying terminology, is new. At the top level, things are much better in North America, Europe, and other places informed by post-Enlightenment values than they have been for anywhere from centuries to millenia.
That said, those same post-Enlightenment values give rise to the curious problem of aesthetic violence.
It is the Enlightment-based division of thought and feeling or being, most easily traced to the influential philosopher René Decartes, which allows for the cognitive dissonance between political value and personal practice that devastates the hopes and dreams of trans folk.
Because many people believe that their feelings are not ‘real’ in the same way as their thoughts and conscious beliefs, most liberals don’t experience conceptual conflict when they cheer on the advancement of LGBTQ rights while remaining uncomfortable with the concept of trans people as neighbors, family members, and/or romantic partners.
The saying ‘not in my backyard‘ becomes something ranging from ‘not in my neighborhood’ to ‘not in my family’ to ‘not in my bedroom’.
And this disapproval, at the systemic level, is the greatest threat to the survival of transgender and gender-variant people that exists today.
It, as a whole, is the most central reason why this blog is [was] anonymous, and why I’m not making money off this post.
And it is the reason that you probably ought to find a trans person on the Internet – more specifically, a trans person of color – who is broke and unemployed, or financially trapped in a terrible and hopeless job or career, and send them some money.
How does one undo this at the systemic level?
By abiding by the tradition of the USA’s Founding Fathers, and not fighting by someone else’s rules.
By engaging in conflict with the bigotry of anti-transgender ‘personal preferences’ on one’s own terms.
By inviting battles that can be won, and avoiding ones that will be lost.
Every day I want to wear a dress, I have a choice: do I shave my face, or do I have facial hair?
This choice is, among many trans women, not a choice at all; regardless of their personal feelings, there is no possibility that they will find acceptance of themselves in the world while presenting with any obvious masculine features such as facial hair. Their face must be shaved and made up. The alternative is financial death, social death, or literal death.
The choice of a trans woman having visible hair on their body anywhere but their head is, most often, literally a matter of life and death.
I am fortunate enough to not have to live in that state of perpetual existential danger. I am able, within carefully chosen or carefully cultivated spaces, to present as I feel comfortable on that day – including with a beard. In those spaces, the worst affront I typically face is disconcerting and painful assumptions and confusion about my preferred pronouns.
Much of my ability to do this is reflective of my class privileges (particularly my educational background and familial resources), my racial privilege, and my quick silver tongue.
It is not easy.
It is not without danger to me, as well as to mine.
Each beard with a dress is a personal declaration of war against the culture that deems my existence an article of disgust and shame.
And it is a battle that I willingly fight.
Because the alternative is ‘the little-death that brings total obliteration‘.
I face my fears each day I put on a dress.
Sometimes I shave.
Often I don’t.
Sometimes, I just don’t put on the dress at all.
Every choice that I make in this is with a mind to the conflict I will sow by simply existing as a transgender person, a trans woman.
And each day, I choose courage – including the courage to avoid a battle that is better to not fight.
So that each time I alter the consciousness of another human being by presenting as a ‘man in a dress’, there will be a trans sister or brother who does not have to.
This is my battle.
This is my war.