Can’t Touch This Skin

I saw Paris is Burning for the first time last weekend at a queer “film experience” screening/drag party event cut from the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival because of complaints from homophobes etc. We still had the event though, just not under the auspices of the festival!

The film was a revelation, and made so much of drag make so much more sense. I have always been kinda confused by drag, and it really helped to learn about its roots in poor queer Black and Latino communities and what things mean beyond what I know filtered and diluted through current pop culture. The film and its screening in Singapore was a fierce, defiant celebration of queerness in the face of discrimination, poverty, ignorance, and in our case censorship.

I came away thinking about how unfortunate it is that a lot trans people are so alienated from drag these days when so many of the pioneers were trans, and many didn’t even that clearly differentiate themselves as gay men/drag queens/transvestites/transsexuals. There is still so much we can learn from our elders and from their traditions. But it seems that mainstream drag has now lost touch with most of its radical roots and become a thing mainly enjoyed by problematic and very cis people who think they are radical just because they watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. These people (including RuPaul himself) do not know the first thing about current trans issues and constantly complain about trans people being “uptight” about our identities when their problems are pointed out.

There is no good way for trans people to either participate or not participate in camp and outrageous gender pageantry. Trans people are endlessly stereotyped as being overly uptight and militant about our genders, because social change is never comfortable for the already-privileged. But we are simultaneously also policed if our genders are not serious and respectable (ie familiar and nonthreatening) enough. Trans people are only “real” and deserving of respect if they do not genderfuck, and are Just Like You, which is why many trans people have had to explain that they are not drag queens, and that drag has nothing to do with their identity.

In Notes on Caitlyn, or Genre Trouble: On the Continued Usefulness of Camp as Queer Method, Marissa Brostoff calls this a “politics of trans sincerity, in which the gender-nonconforming subject is celebrated as transgressive to the extent that her nonconformity can be read as serious—that is, to the extent that she rejects camp”.

And yet:

Judith Butler brought camp to the forefront of queer methodological inquiry in a founding moment of queer theory, the publication of Gender Trouble in 1990. Butler elaborated the notion that camp uses parody and irony to create odd marriages between terms conventionally seen as opposed—high/low, masculine/feminine, real/fake, surface/depth—in order to subvert the social norms that govern identity. In particular, she famously argued, camp’s affiliation with drag performance empowers it to destabilize the naturalness of gender in the eye of the beholder.  “In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency,” Butler wrote. “[G]ender parody reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin”. In her account, then, camp is a mode of queer political critique.

While camp is not inherently political and can be used to reinforce the status quo, it can also be a “strategy of survival in a hostile world” and “queer political critique”. As Kate Bornstein, pioneer gender outlaw, puts it, “we are freaks to a lot of the world” and the trick is to “own it”. Owning it does not have to but can mean participating in campy drag and gender performance. The distancing of trans and other gender-transgressive people from drag is a loss of power, and an appropriation by cis people.


Sidebar: In the middle of writing this post, the latest Dumb Thing That RuPaul Said hit my timeline: “RuPaul Would ‘Probably Not’ Let a Transitioning Queen on Drag Race“. In reference to trans women and bio queens: “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it”. Um. Excuse me?? It is astounding that after all that ball culture and drag has done to demonstrate the instability of “men” as a gender category, after all that trans pioneers of all kinds have done for drag… wow.

Can’t Touch This Skin

On Dysphoria, 2

In my previous post On Dysphoria, I talked about how gender dysphoria is a vague catchall term that I don’t feel is applicable to me.

A friend posited to me that part of my hesitance to name dysphoria in reference to myself might be me minimising my pain. Like, yeah people treat me like shit and I feel shit about it but it’s not THAT bad.. right?

I think she has a point. Sometimes being mis-pronouned makes me so uncomfortable that it ruins the next few days and I dread or avoid social situations in which it could possibly happen (ie all of them). Being illegible weighs on me. I don’t know if this fits the clinical definition of dysphoria, and it doesn’t sound like the innate visceral feelings that I hear other people talk about, but it does sound like some “gender based discomfort”. Part of why I don’t want to name it is that I think it’s not as real or as bad as what “real” trans people with “real” dysphoria go through.

I am still cautious about labelling things “dysphoria” without specification or examination, as in the previous post. However, I am allowed to feel pain in whatever form I experience it without minimising or dismissing it as not real. The gender binary does violence to my identity constantly, and pain is a real and valid response.

On Dysphoria, 2

Sobriety 2018

In the middle of last year I moved back home to my parents for the summer break and got an almost full time job waitering. I didn’t have time or freedom to drink. The job gave me structure and purpose, and I was exhausted and content at the end of every day, reducing the negative emotions that caused me to want to drink in the first place. Sobriety, structure, and the proximity of my parents all worked together to reinforce each other and resulted in my best stretch of mental health in some time.

My self harm, caffeine, and alcohol use are maladaptive coping mechanisms. What has worked so far for me in avoiding them has been relieving the stressors causing me to turn to them, such that I simply don’t need them any more. Trying to directly stop the behaviours without addressing the causes didn’t work because it was a lot of effort that I wasn’t convinced was worth it. “Why shouldn’t I do this thing that makes me feel better?” was an argument with myself that I usually lost.

However, there really are healthier coping mechanisms, much as I instinctively deny it, and continuing to rely on unhealthy ones prevents me from learning them. Evidence: I do feel better when I stop doing these self-destructive things. Feeling better makes me less likely to do those things and go improve my life, leading to Virtuous Cycle of Good Mental Health and Happiness.

Some of the literature around recovery and sobriety has been helpful to me, and I am less concerned with discussing what alcoholism is and whether I technically qualify than with how I can in practice make choices that I can be happy with. I have found that I cannot consume any amount of alcohol and ultimately be happy with that decision. I use alcohol to avoid negative emotions and fill time, especially to procrastinate while avoiding the guilt of procrastination. Anything less than total abstinence is a rapid slippery slope, and the spectre of alcohol quickly takes over my life. I feel good for a short, reckless, while, then my mood and mental health go to shit and it takes weeks of sobriety to get back to where I was. This description really resonated with me: “The effect alcohol has on your emotional state is not unlike the effect that sunglasses have on light.” When alcohol feels like an option, my life feels dulled and darker, both because of the chemical and because real life doesn’t feel like it really matters when there’s an easy out. Sobriety feels clear and sharp and bright. Alcohol also is just a huge time and money sink, and caused me to go to shitty parties with people I didn’t like, where the only pro was alcohol.

Thus, this year I have decided to make a proper commitment to sobriety, instead of letting it happen by chance. This means total abstinence from alcohol, including “tasting”. There will be no concession or leeway on this.

Some learning points from last year when I “kinda” decided to stop drinking but with little conviction: Most of my difficulty was social, because drinking is socially acceptable and expected, unlike self-harm which most people agree is bad. Almost all the times I wavered were due to lack of assertiveness. I wanted to avoid having to explain why I didn’t want to drink, and it was often easier and less awkward to go with it. (It is difficult for people to talk about their personal relationship with alcohol without other people feeling judged. But I have no idea how other people relate to alcohol, and it is not usually my business. Maybe other people can drink socially; that’s fine, I just can’t/don’t want to.)

I have some shame around my inability to consume alcohol like a “normal”, functional person without going off the rails, and so subsequently also around my attempts at sobriety. Alcoholism is something I associate with middle aged men with beer bellies, and I think I am “too young”. Even the word sobriety makes me uncomfortable. So when people ask why I’m not drinking, I don’t know what to say. I don’t have an easy, socially acceptable answer like “I’m pregnant/muslim/both”. I don’t have the confidence and commitment to say “I don’t want to” and stick to it, because sometimes it’s not completely true. Friends whom I would otherwise have confided in also tend to ask me this question in wildly inappropriate situations. Like… I would tell you, but now is not the time to get into it, in front of all these people!? So I just make inarticulate gestures at them? Haha.

Probably eventually I will get to the point of being comfortable with “I don’t want to”. Meanwhile, my action plan for 2018 is to either say “I am recovering from alcoholism”, and let them decide whether or not I am joking, or to say “mental health” and shrug vaguely. I will ask for water in situations where people are holding drinks and I don’t want to be empty handed.

By putting all this in words, I hope to cement the commitment in my mind. I will also be reaching out to some friends for support and accountability (which is scary af but I am ON IT). I also found this video on partying while sober and queer to be very helpful, since many queer spaces revolve around alcohol. In particular, I will be practising “have a purpose”, eg music/dancing/a friend’s birthday party, in spaces that have drugs or alcohol around, beyond just being there, as well as “contact a sponsor or supportive friend” if necessary.

2018 will be a challenging year. For much of it I will be alone 7 time zones away from home, doing self-directed research work on a flexible schedule, all major triggers. But there will also be exciting opportunities, and I will be doing everything I can to improve my odds and rise to the occasion.

Sobriety 2018

On Anger

This month I tried to go on T, which didn’t work out. I also realised that somehow I had gradually surrounded myself almost completely with cis people who constantly misgender me despite knowing better and having had more than a year to get with the programme.

I am angry and exhausted and isolated. I am trapped in social norms under which my gender cannot be legible because there simply do not exist norms for being genderqueer, and there is nothing I can do to be legible. I am trapped in a patriarchal power structure under which I will never have the ease enjoyed by straight cisgender white abled men. I will always be disadvantaged because of how I exist in the world.

Sara Ahmed writes about the exhaustion and discomfort of failing to inhabit norms:

Normativity is comfortable for those who can inhabit it. The word “comfort” suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it also suggests an ease and an easiness. To follow the rules of heterosexuality is to be at ease in a world that reflects back the couple form one inhabits as an ideal.

Heteronormativity function as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. Those spaces are lived as comfortable as they allow bodies to fit in; the surfaces of social space are already impressed upon by the shape of such bodies (like a chair that acquires its shape by the repetition of some bodies inhabiting it: we can almost see the shape of bodies as ‘impressions’ on the surface).

You can feel the categories that you fail to inhabit: they are sources of discomfort. Comfort is a feeling that tends not to be consciously felt.


For some bodies to stand is to withstand.  We can be exhausted by the labour of standing. If social privilege is like an energy saving device, no wonder that not to inherit privilege can be so trying. There is a politics to exhaustion. Feeling depleted can be a measure of just what we are up against.

Therapy makes me angry. This isn’t a *me* problem, it’s a *the rest of the world* problem. I resent the suggestion that *I* should change anything about myself. Trying to explain any of this to people also makes me angry. Trying to explain a source of discomfort to people who are comfortable (“labels don’t matter, we’re all human!1!”) is frustrating. I shouldn’t have to catalogue and exhibit my pain, or satisfy idle voyeurism, in order for people to treat me decently. Please stop waiting for me to say “please don’t misgender me because it hurts my feelings” before you will pay attention and stop misgendering me. Just, be a fucking decent person whether or not you have power over me?? It’s as if some people need to be reassured that they have the ability to cause grievous hurt before they can magnanimously decide to not do that.

Why should *I* have to explain anything! Cishet people never have to justify to two mental health professionals their decisions to not have HRT. Cis and gender conforming people never have to explain to their friends what it means to be their genders, or why they’re still their genders whether or not they wear makeup. It is understood. But the result of me refusing/not being able to explain is that I am simply not understood.

Audre Lorde writes about anger in The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism (1981):

Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.

My response to racism is anger. That anger has eaten clefts into my living only when it remained unspoken, useless to anyone. It has also served me in classrooms without light or learning, where the work and history of Black women was less than a vapor. It has served me as fire in the ice zone of uncomprehending eyes of white women who see in my experience and the experience of my people only new reasons for fear or guilt.

In The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action (1977) she writes:

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.

I don’t know how to do any of this. It is difficult and unfair and frustrating. My instinct is to turn the anger on myself and self-destruct, because I am the one thing in this world I have control over and can easily change. That helps nobody but it is easy. I have no visionary words for great social change or relief or solidarity for the downtrodden. I am just a regular person who happens to be genderqueer. Why can’t everything already be easy. But here we are. Here we fucking are.

On Anger

Book Recs 2017

Part 1: “Gender” books

While writing this I realised I never got around to the book reviews for last year.. haha. Here they are together. This year I read slightly more “theory” books, particularly Audre Lorde, but overall still very light reading. I made a start on Judith Butler’s Undoing Gender and some stuff by Sara Ahmed, but I’m still not quite there on my slow descent into academe yet. Stone Butch Blues is also on my to-read list.

Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation
Edited by Kate Bornstein, S. Bear Bergman
If you only read one thing, read this. This is the first book that I ever wrote on (I used to believe in keeping my books in pristine condition) because I had so many feelings, and I needed to underline things that I FELT so deeply. This collection of essays is what finally convinced me that there is no wrong way to be any gender. Reading this book helped with so much of my gender related angst. It is diverse and honest and funny and true and vulnerable and encouraging and lovely.

Gender Failure – Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon
Parts of it are also available on youtube in spoken word form! Here. I cried a bit reading this. Especially relatable to those of us who grew up struggling with girlhood, and then not quite fitting into the other major gender. It put words to a lot of what I had been feeling and was not yet able to articulate. I’ve quoted from this book multiple times elsewhere on this blog.

Exile and Pride – Eli Clare
This book was my first encounter with disability activism and politics, as well as writing about being rural poor. Clare’s writing is clear and compelling, at once both personal and political. The chapter on the history of freakshows and the word “freak” was especially illuminating. While their circumstances are different from mine, I related to the displacement of not belonging to “mainstream” (white, urban, western, middle class) queer culture and not having those parts of me recognised by queer culture, while not having queerness be recognised in my place of birth; being neither here nor there, in permanent exile and having no home. CW: abuse

Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde articulates things with cutting precision, still so relevant all these decades later. Her words on the uses of anger against oppression, the importance of not being silent, of language, give me strength.

Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity
Edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
I love collections of essays, and getting to hear from a myriad of voices. This collection focuses on passing, and the various ways we all pass or fail to pass.

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You – S. Bear Bergman
A very enjoyable and relatable collection of essays about being genderqueer.

Tomboy Survival Guide, Loose End, and others – Ivan Coyote
Ivan’s essays are wry and sharply observed. I imagine Ivan as the gruff, slightly intimidating, Canadian nonbinary parental figure / role model person in my life.

Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us and Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws – Kate Bornstein
Gender Outlaw was published in 1995, way before The Next Generation. An interesting read ahead of its time. Kate is eccentric and excellent. Read Alternatives if you would like to receive permission to give less fucks.


Part 2: Some of the non-gender books I read recently which made me cry tears, unless otherwise stated


A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman
A lovely, enjoyable read about human connection. Actually a similar structure with Everything I Never Told You (main narrative in the present + flashback chapters). I also read both these books in the large print edition. Useful for legibility while crying.

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
This reminded me of The Solitude of Prime Numbers. On the everyday tragedy of the tiny ways we misunderstand each other, with excellent and subtle treatment of themes of racism and sexism. The writer really captures the ways that these forces operate in real lives, and how we respond, and how they pull us apart. Also, the writing. So good.

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
A children’s book about grief. I cried, and learned, a lot.

Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Okay I didn’t cry reading this one. It was generous and funny. Amy presents herself to us without the protective outer layer, lightly, with wit and warmth and charm. Reading the book felt like having a friend in the flesh. John Green’s tribute to Amy here.

My Brother’s Husband – Gengoroh Tagame
I’ve never read manga before now! Tagame, who usually writes more hardcore stuff, has written this beautiful (family-friendly) series about the violence of quiet, subtle homophobia that can be just as harmful as explicit bigotry.

And The Walls Come Crumbling Down – Tania De Rozario
Beautiful personal essays on love, family and home as a queer woman. One of my two favourite pieces of singlit.

Ministry of Moral Panic – Amanda Lee Koe
I didn’t cry at this one either! But it was ridiculously good.

Fun Home – Alison Bechdel
I haven’t actually read this but I saw the musical and basically ugly cried the entire time. I hate that this list is basically a list of all the times I cried this year. Did I read nothing memorable that wasn’t sad the whole year? Am I just very emotional?? I don’t know!! I am so done with this list now! Goodbye!

Book Recs 2017

Gender Euphoria?

I often hear the explanation that gender euphoria is the opposite of gender dysphoria, implying it’s a happy, light feeling; the opposite of pain. That has not been my experience. Gender synchrony, for me, has been about pain. I experience it as a knot of pain in my solar plexus, inexpressible, almost unendurable. This is my attempt at unknotting, weeks, months, a year later.

A catalog of all the complicated, painful feelings I had about cutting my hair, wearing boxers, etc etc:

  1. Surprise. Strong feelings always take me by surprise. It’s just hair, it doesn’t have to, SHOULDN’T, mean anything, gender is a construct, people of any gender can wear whatever and look however. I know this! And yet!
  2. Denial. I try to convince myself not to feel these feelings, because it makes more sense and is more convenient if I don’t feel these feelings
  3. Fear. What does it mean if I am indeed feeling these feelings? What kind of life changes will I have to make, after all I’ve done to get to where I am?
  4. Vulnerability. It is scary to admit that I indeed have these strong feelings of which I am not in absolute control. It is difficult to sit here and look all of it in the eye and not go back to layer 2, denial.
  5. A bittersweet sadness. Is this what I have been missing out on my entire life?
  6. More sadness. It takes so much to get here. This happiness is so unattainable and all this is so troublesome. Why can’t things be simple!
  7. Joy. At the bottom of it all is a bright light that shines out of my chest. It is so good and so strong and just… There is so much of it. I don’t know what to do with it. It hurts the way love hurts.

Growth, change, these are painful things. Perhaps the opposite of pain is pain, but a different kind. A good kind.


Gender Euphoria?