All that womanhood
caught in the roof
of my mouth
was like honey.
I knew it would never
so I never said a word
— Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, There Should Be Flowers
Funny story about writing this for Powells.com — it was a decade ago I walked into the flagship store on Burnside looking for trans books. I was 22 years old, a confused and frightened boy in a skirt (or, at least, that’s what I called myself at the time.) I would wander around the city in bright clothing, bright hair, bright nail polish, believing myself lucky to only hear stuff like, “Are you a boy or a girl!” and “You look like a fucking fag!”
Language keeps its secrets, pink tongue roses, blooming
The intoxication of death or you, a body becoming its own
Name or sounding it out, slivers of cool wrists
Broken, inscribed as accident, an accent encrypting
— Trish Salah, Wanting in Arabic
I thought I was lucky that I could be that visible and not be physically hurt. That was my benchmark: being allowed to exist. I look back and I think, I really was lucky
, and I also look back and think, What a bummer. What standards trans people set themselves for "lucky."
Anyway. There was a gay and lesbian section at Powell’s on the second floor. By default I’m an extroverted goon, but I spoke to the clerk in a church mouse voice: “Do you have a… a… a… transgender section?” And what a fucking world, they did! Three rows of books in the bottom of gay and lesbian shelf, all dedicated to trans people. Oh man, fucking jackpot.
I spent an hour looking through every book in the section.
And I was giddy and disappointed, but I couldn’t articulate the latter. The majority of the books were:
1) Memoirs by trans women who’d transitioned later in life after they’d got married and had kids
2) Social science texts by a cisgender (i.e., not a transgender) person
There were some exceptions to those categories, but that duality dominated. If any of the few fiction and poetry books of the time were on that shelf, I don’t remember them. The authors were near-exclusively white.
welcome to the first day of forever
You will feel an ocean inside your chest,
a dark current of salt and plastic water bottles
— Gwen Benaway, Holy Wild
A book I didn’t buy back then? Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity
by Julia Serano. Because I read the intro and it immediately made me feel too stupid and timid and I didn’t understand why she was so angry.
When I first told people that I was working on a book based on my experiences and perspectives as a transsexual woman, many of them immediately assumed that I was writing an autobiography….Perhaps they imagined that I would write one of those confessional tell-alls that non-trans people seem to constantly want to hear from transsexual women, one that begins with my insistence that I have always been a “woman trapped inside a man’s body”; one that distorts my desire to be female into a quest for feminine pursuits; one that explains the ins and outs of sex reassignment surgery and hormones in gory detail; one that completely avoids discussions about what it is like to be treated as a woman and how that compares to how I was treated as a male.
— Julia Serano, Whipping Girl
It’s funny to think about now, because Whipping Girl
in particular changed my life when I eventually read it in 2011, and it informed much of how I articulate moving through the world as a transgender woman (and indeed, after logging a couple more years of said movement, I was a lot angrier). The memoirs and social science texts? They don’t do much for me anymore.
I called this boy
I’d met, and picked an outfit for the train:
Beige skirt and boots and turtleneck and shades,
I had a sense of glamour, was so bright,
Brought whiskey, talked too much: "I have ideas,
Can we stay up and ask what beauty is..."
— Cat Fitzpatrick, Glamourpuss
The Trans Writes display
at Powell’s right now shows how much has changed in the intervening decade. It’s meaningful as all hell that my own novel, Little Fish
, is displayed there, a novel about a young trans girl’s struggles with alcoholism, suicide, and sex work while unraveling an old Mennonite family secret. It’s fuckin’ cool that this display holds only a few spare books that could’ve made it to that old shelf in 2009 (Whipping Girl
and Susan Stryker’s required-reading Transgender History
in particular). And most of all, it rules just how good those books are.
So [she and Kieran] became friends, they ate lunch together, it was a new relationship, even though it wasn’t supposed to be a make-out relationship. They talked about stuff, he explained stuff to her — he loves to explain stuff — and she was like, oh my god, here is a person who knows the real smart truth about transitioning! Gender truly is a construct!
Eventually you can’t help but figure out that, while gender is a construct, so is a traffic light, and if you ignore either of them, you get hit by cars. Which, also, are constructs.
They fucked in a Burritoville bathroom.
— Imogen Binnie, Nevada
To be clear: Trans people have always made art and always made writing. Always. The truth is not that trans people have come into our own creativity; the truth is something like that certain sectors of the world have changed enough that our creativity is allowed more ISBNs.
Trish Salah wrote the beautiful and brilliant Wanting in Arabic
in 2002. In 2004, little light began blogging intensively hard and gorgeous truths (“The Seam of Skin and Scales
” continues to be cited often by trans women in my life). Sybil Lamb had been making zines all through the 2000s (pieces of which show up in her 2014 novel on this shelf, I’ve Got A Time Bomb
). Mirha-Soleil Ross and Xanthra Phillippa MacKay put out their gendertrash
zines in the early ’90s. And Leslie Feinberg’s seminal Stone Butch Blues
was published in 1993. All of these artists have enormously influenced trans culture in the last couple decades, but few of them, as is the case today, could be ordered on standard distribution channels and easily put onto a shelf.
If anyone had actually come to pull her outta the dumpster they would have found her screaming soundlessly and thrashing about. She let her thoughts float up and away, to get picked off by birds and cooked in the sun. She lost herself delighting in the shapes and lights way up above her. She didn’t need to know what they were. She just liked seeing that something was here with her. NO, I MEAN, she liked being removed from the whole world; seeing it leave traces of light while she was safe, where light couldn’t penetrate. NO, I MEAN, she looked out and saw a world that was just flashes of light and color, and she felt bigger and more real than any of it.
— Sybil Lamb, I’ve Got A Time Bomb
Which brings me to the whole reason I’ve been asked to write this piece. Visibility
, Trans Day of. Visibility is a concept many trans activists question. There’s a lot of reason to believe that visibility comes with increased vulnerability, particularly for trans people who are poor, racialized, sex workers, or disabled. In other words — a lot of trans people!
We are living in a time of trans visibility. Yet we are also living in a time of anti-trans violence…the promise of “positive representation” ultimately gives little support or protection to many, if not most, trans and gender non-conforming people, particularly those who are low-income and/or of color — the very people whose lives and labor constitute the ground for the figuration of this moment of visibility.
— Reina Gossett, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton, editors of Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility
Many of the books above have literally changed my life, so much for the better. But visibility without health care, income, housing, and safety — it can be more hindrance than help. I like to say visibility is the sugar of trans politics. You need it to live! But visibility alone is empty calories.
Having said all that, there is always power in trans people’s words. People
. The cacophony of our voices is beautiful. When trans people are involved, there should always be a chorus of us speaking, Highlander
temptations avoided. There are so many of us, and there will only be more.
Pretend that the rest of your life was the aberration. Pretend you have the confidence you need. Try, try so hard.
— Jeanne Thornton, “Angels Are Here to Help You” (Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy From Transgender Writers)
Oh no, she says. I was looking for you.
— Torrey Peters, Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones
÷ ÷ ÷
wrote the novel Little Fish
, the short story collection A Safe Girl to Love
, and coedited the anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy From Transgender Writers